Being staged at The Basement we naturally turned up thinking we were going to witness a piss-take of Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. However in reality we were pleasantly surprised by the commitment and integrity of the performance on stage. Both the quality of acting and singing were absolutely flawless. And it was a treat to behold opera up close and personal in such an intimate venue.
We were promised an immersive promenade experience but instead were presented with a main-stage that was a bit too staid (except for the fact that there was a band stage right) and nothing much had been done in the bar except for a band stand. That said, heading upstairs was an absolute delight, with the lighting and the mood akin to Peter Pan’s Neverland of wonderment. Josh Foley’s ornate costuming of satin dresses with extravagant head dresses, and the Mikado-like face painting effects brought life to the whole visual side of things in comparison to the too-stark staging.
Besides saying things like ‘follow me’ or ‘Bitches come with me’ there wasn’t much else that tied the show together as we were invited to move from one space to the other. All the audience got were instructions to migrate to the next locale. Some semblance of what was in store at the next location may have better aided this process.
When we came down again through the bar we were accosted by the band’s conductor Alex Taylor, playing the keys and singing not dissimilar to what one would encounter in an East End pub. Although incongruous in comparison with the rest of the show it definitely provided light relief that the audience relished in spades. Overall the live music on main stage was great with musical director Taylor underpinning Purcell’s recomposed score with his astute direction, piano playing and sorcerer like conduction.
For those who don’t know that the plot of this famous opera, which is a passionate and tragic story of love, power, and treachery centered around the two main characters Dido and Aeneas, it was probably a little difficult to follow in terms of the storyline. Despite being in English, we struggled to understand what was going on in front of us, mainly due to the singers’ inaudible diction.
In general I felt it was a fun night out but artistically I think there’s still room for development, to clarify themes and storylines, especially for those unfamiliar with classical opera.
So if the aim was to introduce opera to the punters I’d have to say this was not a very successful exercise because of the aforementioned lack of clarity. But if the aim was to bring new audiences to the Basement, it was a roaring success, evident by the very different opera-loving crowd there tonight. In terms of destigmatising opera and making it more accessible to the punters this was probably a good curatorial choice on the part of the Basement programming and should be encouraged.
Despite the fabulous elements of beautiful vocals and skillful acting we felt that intrinsically it was the direction and the somewhat bitty diction that let the show down. Instead of leaving us nourished and satisfied with this unfamiliar opera piece we were left somewhat baffled and confused.
Dido and Aenaes is presented by Unstuck Opera plays at The Basement until 21 May. Details see The Basement.