Billing itself as a sequel of sorts, Errollyn Wallen’s new libretto Dido’s Ghost not only begins where Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas concludes, but also seeks to entwine the two. In doing so, it offers a performance of the original that is intermittently stitched into the new production. Through flashback and re-enactment, Dido’s Ghost seeks to blur the fragmented line between realms, not only that of the living and the deceased, but also the temporal. The value of memory itself is tied directly into the story, with the ancient words colliding with the concurrent as period instruments and contemporary genres make up the majority of the orchestra.
Assimilating Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Wallen’s Dido’s Ghost interlaces the ancient Greek mythos of Dido’s tragic love and death with a re-telling. Dido’s Ghost shimmers with elements of the original tale through the story of Dido’s sister Anna. Our tale begins with the distraught King Aeneas, the previous lover of Dido, infatuated and obsessed with Anna – a woman possessing uncharacteristic similarities to her departed sister.
Components of the production serve tremendously as singular modules, but once combined they gnarl Dido’s Ghost into a contrived, messy, and surprisingly tame production. In entwining itself with Purcell’s original tragedy, the lines become crossed, choking both the old and new in its attempts to merge and build upon them.
The vocal writing itself stretches the range of even seasoned veterans, with the pangs of jealous fury quickly slipping into the screeches of the furies. Fortunately, it is survived by those with a lower octave range who can temper the composition to halt itself and match the timber – as is the case of Matthew Brook’s Aeneas or Henry Waddington’s Sorcerer. This issue doesn’t affect the chorus thankfully who, by in large, are the keenest part of the production; their command of tempo offering the desperately needed changes in pace and delivery.
Structurally the composition of Dido’s Ghost doesn’t alter across the various arias. Attempts are made to distinguish scenes, but the entire score ultimately barrels into the next. The impending dread of the opening was at first a triumph, but by the one hour mark, it has bogged down any momentum. A litany of woe, the initial sparks of inspired brilliance offered by drawing the contemporary into the ancient through electric guitars and heavy percussive beats, quickly gives way to unyielding repetition. Ultimately becoming a supplement that vastly overstays its welcome.
Similarly, the libretto lets itself down on the melody. The lyrics contain destructively sinister imagery that illustrate the narrative vividly, but they don’t conform to the expectant musicality of the production. The techniques and capabilities of soprano Golda Schultz make for a haunting voice that is sadly wasted when drowned in a sea of tedious drumming. Perhaps the true tragedy of the tale resides with Lavinia, our antagonist. There’s an expectation within the vocal writing which Allison Cook valiantly attempts to match, but at peak, her notes struggle with the harpy-esque expectations.
The harsh reality is that when an art form isn’t engaging, it’s particularly difficult to reclaim the audience’s attention. This is especially so in opera, and once the immersion is lost it’s nigh impossible to regain; and unfortunately Wallen loses a portion of the audience relatively quickly. After a blisteringly intense and atmospheric opening, the reality quickly sinks in that Dido’s Ghost is riding its dynamic opening for its entire runtime.
Similarly, staging decisions erupt with problems across the production. Where ideas possessed potential, the execution leads to stifling movements and manoeuvres across the stage. While the incorporation of netting -tying directly into the aquatic theme- has merit, the stagehands holding the poles in place quickly become a distraction. Although Dido’s Ghost possesses a valiant soul in re-igniting a woman’s tragedy into a multi-dimensional piece, it loses itself to the folly of monotonous scoring and an illustrative, but vocally complex, libretto.