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Dido & Aeneas and Orfeo ed Euridice @ Hope Mill Theatre review – an impressive double bill

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Featured image: City of Manchester Opera

City of Manchester Opera presented their first double bill since 2019, featuring Dido and Aeneas and Orfeo ed Euridice at Hope Mill Theatre. Both performances were conducted by Musical Director Juan Oruño and directed by Artistic Director Nigel Machin.

The Manchester-based company, comprised of professional, semi-professional and trained amateur singers brought together by a shared passion for opera, tackled the challenge of bringing together the two operas within a single set. Machin said: “I have chosen to focus on a traditional setting for Dido using the Tudor period costumes to contrast with a more contemporary setting for the Orfeo.”

Dido and Aeneas

The Sunday matinee performance exudes a relaxed atmosphere, with guests welcome by friendly, warm staff in the cosy bar and restaurant. First up is Dido and Aeneas, an opera written by English Baroque composer Henry Purcell with a libretto (accompanying text) by Nahum Tate. A tragic love story based on Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, it has become one of the most frequently performed operas from the Baroque period. 

The opera captures a moment during Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy, where he will help to found the city of Rome, when his ship is blown off-course by a storm and he ends up taking refuge in the city of Carthage, the city Dido had founded. Dido, Queen of Carthage, who had determined never to remarry after the death of her husband, finds herself tormented by her attraction to Aeneas. Belinda, her sister and handmaid, insists that uniting their two kingdoms would benefit both. Aeneas arrives, convinces Dido of his love, and she accepts him. Though of course, it is not that simple.

The opera opens in Dido’s court, which remains the backdrop throughout the performance, with the orchestra and chorus positioned on either side. Any change of setting is signalled only through dramatic changes in the music and lighting. Dido (Jessica Harper) arrives with her two handmaids, Belinda (Sarah Williamson) and Second Woman (Sara Elisa Gessa). 

Jessica Harper gives a graceful performance as the Queen, with her subtle, minimal physicality suggesting her royal poise. Her movements appear effortless, and this is matched in her vocal delivery, reinforcing her regal nature.

Belinda and the Second Woman are quite the duo, and Belinda enchants us from her first joyous outcries in her enthusiastic attempts to woo Dido into pursuing Aeneas. It is not only her voice but the rich versatility of her facial expressions which give life to her actions.

The Sorceress (Deborah Lea), with First and Second witches (Fiona Harrison and Carol Taylor) take great delight in hatching a plan to trick Aeneas into sailing to Italy, leaving Dido. The two witches urge her on, bubbling with mischief, which brings one of them into periodic bursts of excitement which bring her off her feet into little gleeful jumps. The accompanying bursts of smoke and artificial storm sound effects were a crude contrast to the organic orchestral music, yet this was seemingly intentional and quite comical.

The group of dancers arrive, who appear throughout both performances, with elegant, contemporary choreography, reinforcing the different atmospheres of each scene, while not distracting too much from the action.

Dido’s life, and this opera, have a long and tragic ending. Dido’s quiet lament, its gentleness making it all the more tragic, is momentarily interrupted by Aeneas’ return, but she rejects him, and gets back to her lamenting – classic melodrama. With its plot of failed love, ripe with deceit and misunderstanding, not dissimilar to contemporary dramas, it is clear why this opera remains so relevant.

Orfeo ed Euridice

Orfeo ed Euridice, composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck with a libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, is based on the myth of Orpheus. It is sung in Italian with English subtitles, and this is a welcome contrast to the previous show, the language lending itself to romance and melodrama.

First presented in Vienna in 1762, Orfeo ed Euridice is recognised as a turning point in the history of opera, as Gluck introduces fluidity, aiming to make opera seria more natural and dramatic. The orchestra, composed of less than 10 musicians, did justice to the lyrical intensity of Gluck’s music.

We return after the interval to a distinctly different world than the previous opera, despite no major changes to the set design, the use of gauzes and deep blue lighting create a markedly more contemporary tone. 

Opening at Euridice’s grave, the dancers, dressed in sinister black veils, join Orfeo in mourning the death of his lover. Orfeo is only able to utter her name. Helen Gregory gives a beautiful, captivating performance as Orfeo; what begins as a quiet, aching lament gradually expands throughout the opera into an overwhelming expression of passion which shifts between suffering and love – in which the two are interwoven. When left to grieve alone, Orfeo vows to rescue Euridice from the underworld; a brutally romantic gesture.

Amore, the god of love, is played by Sarah Williamson, who has the space to shine in her second performance of the day in this charming and powerful role. Amore allows Orfeo to descend to the land of the dead to retrieve Euridice, under the conditions that he must neither look at her nor explain why it is forbidden, otherwise he will lose her forever – a painful premise.

From the moment the pair are reunited, the connection between Orfeo and Euridice, and the complicity between the two actors, is obvious – their dynamic truly works. As the two rejoice together, the celebrations are contagious, spreading throughout the chorus, dancers and audience.

Euridice (Katy Allen), is introduced with an innocent, joyful demeanour, though this is short lived. What follows is a comic choreography in which the two lovers, despite their extravagant vocal declarations of love to one another, are constantly positioned back to back, as Orfeo studiously avoids Euridice’s face. Orfeo’s face is spectacular, capturing this internal strife; the battle between his intense love and suffering playing out in his complexion. 

The contrast between her subtle, delicate, soft physical actions, with her bold voice, and extreme facial expressions creates an interesting incoherence as Euridice refuses to continue, concluding that death would be preferable.

In a delicious, indulgently satisfying moment that quickly turns terrible, Orfeo submits to desire and decides to look at Euridice, and she instantly dies – the audience gasps with Orfeo. 

The tragedy escalates to the point at which Orfeo is ready to kill himself to join Euridice in Hades, but Amore appears once again – in return for his continued love she returns Euridice to life. The opera ends with Orfeo and Euridice, joined by Amore and the chorus, celebrating the power of love – at this point, it is well earned.

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Tara Morony

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