Beautiful, inscrutable – Sasha Waltz's "choreographic opera" will thrill some but leave many scratching their heads
“What’s all this got to do with the opera, tell me?!” Heckling in a theatre is always wrong; it distracts the performers, it disturbs other audience members. But for some in the opening night audience, it was a bit of an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ moment. Someone was calling bullshit on Sasha Waltz’s much-hyped, highly anticipated (thanks to marketing focusing on the water-tank gimmick) “choreographic opera” – which many were hoping might be the Semele Walk of this year’s Sydney Festival.
Okay – the emperor does have clothes: Dido & Aeneas is not a bad show by any stretch. It’s thoroughly conceived and rehearsed, and Waltz’s consideration of the source material – Henry Purcell’s opera and the myth on which it’s based – turns up some interesting ideas (setting the prologue, where Aeneas is shipwrecked on the way from Troy to the Mediterranean, in the water tank) and some truly great ones (splitting the interior life of the key characters between one singer, the ‘ego’ if you like, and either two or one dancers, the ‘id’ and ‘super-ego’, let’s say).
There are also several moments of incredible beauty (the tableau of courtiers dressed in costumes of extravagantly-assembled, jewel-hued garments is a highlight) and emotional power (‘Dido’s lament’, in which soprano Aurore Ugolin and dancer Yael Schnell appear trapped in a net of their own hair, gave me chills).
But there are simply too few moments of coherence in this production. Although sung in English, the words are too often lost because of volume or articulation issues (there are no subtitles), and the choreography conveys a sketchy-at-best idea of the plot (definitely read up on this before you go – or purchase a program). There is not enough consistent beauty or visual engagement here to sustain 100 minutes.
And while Dido and Aeneas is a better opera for choreographic interpretation than most, being action-lite and emotion-heavy, Purcell’s delicate orchestration for a baroque ensemble (here, the top notch Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin) fights against the large space the set design requires.
The bottom line? Dido and Aeneas is a fascinating but frustratingly inscrutable and disjointed production. The gentleman heckler articulated what many of us were thinking during too many of the sequences/scenes: what does all this have to do with Henry Purcell’s opera?