The Cape Consort ensemble specialises in early music and historically-informed performance, which is not generally my cup of tea. But with Dido & Aeneas – their first fully-staged opera – they have succeeded in producing a piece of theatre that is musically, dramatically and visually exciting. To say that they blew my preconceived ideas out of the water is an understatement.
Henry Purcell’s opera tells the tale of Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid. Marí Borstlap’s staging moves the action to the present day, and adapts it heavily away from the realm of heroes and gods. It takes place in Carthage Asylum, where Dido has been admitted following a mental breakdown. Her former lover Aeneas has received a promotion at the Trojan & Trojan Marine Co., and has been transferred to Rome. Dido’s handmaid Belinda is recast as the matron of the asylum, and the witches appear instead as medical interns.
The bare unplastered walls of the Fugard Studio perfectly match the asylum setting. Even before the performance starts, the staff are sitting at their desks typing away on their computers. Belinda’s desk is in the middle, flanked by a pair of interns on either side. The instrumental quintet occupies the right rear corner, most of them dressed in lab coats. Dido’s bed is in the opposite corner, next to a clothing rail. Above her is a projection of the ocean. Projections are used throughout to show Dido’s memories and hallucinations, closeups of important props, and background during scene changes. Sound effects add greatly to the immersion, as does the characters having actual conversations over the music instead of miming.
With everyone seated, the house lights dimmed, and with a synchronous glance at their watches, the first chords were struck. Lente Louw was very convincing as a troubled and mentally unstable Dido. Elsabé Richter also did well in her portrayal as a sympathetic but long-suffering matron Belinda, who tries to appear strong and in charge in front of her interns. Nic de Jager’s countertenor (and occasional baritone) voice was in fine form as a medical intern nicknamed ‘The Sorcerer’ because of his card tricks. Antoinette Blyth and Riaan le Roux had a few solo moments as unnamed interns, but their biggest contribution was in the immaculate ensemble singing.
In the second act of this short opera, which runs uninterrupted, Dido is treated to a birthday party to cheer her up. Unfortunately her mood turns as she is reminded of Aeneas, and she escapes from the asylum.
The scene changes to a flashback at Trojan & Trojan Marine Co., and everyone swaps their lab coats for jackets. Nick de Jager as the CEO congratulates Aeneas (Willem Bester) on his promotion to their head office in Rome. Bester comes across as a career-driven playboy, which makes it all the more believable that he would leave Dido behind.
In the third act, the asylum staff search high and low for Dido. She is found on the roof with a suitcase in her hand – a scene vividly created by Louw standing on a chair at the back of the stage, with a film clip of her on a rooftop projected above her. Following a harsh punishment, Dido leaves Belinda a note on her bed, and exits her room. While Belinda reads the note, Dido sings the most famous tune from the opera, ‘When I am laid in earth’. She leaves the asylum, and another projection shows her ending her life by walking into the sea. Echoing a line from her lament, the show ends with the words “Remember me” on the screen.
The audience saved their applause for the very end, because there was hardly a convenient moment for the duration of this very detailed and very tight production.
My only criticism on the otherwise good singing is that the hiss of the air-conditioning competed with the softer bits. I reckon they could give a bit more voice – they certainly have plenty in reserve.
The instrumental ensemble, led by Hans Huyssen on the cello, provided perfect support. Uwe Grosser added a range of interesting sounds and textures on his lute, chitaronne and baroque guitar. The ensemble was rounded out by Annien Shaw and Janna Khweis on violin, and Emile de Roubaix on viola, all of whom were standing throughout the performance.
I was yet again amazed by the quality of work that small companies can produce. Opera, especially ones from the 17th century, can be boring if it’s presented in an uninteresting way, and good music isn’t always enough to save a bad production. The Cape Consort have successfully avoided this pitfall and produced something that is worth experiencing by music, opera and theatre lovers alike.