Purcell's Dido and Aeneas was first staged by Opera North in November 1978 during the company's inaugural season and starred Ann Murray as the forsaken heroine. It is almost as long since Lesley Garrett's last appearance with the company as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther (1982). As something of a belated homecoming for one of Yorkshire most famous daughters, Opera North has mounted a new production of La voix humaine - Poulenc's monologue based on Jean Cocteau's gripping play.
This is unquestionably a vehicle for a singing actress, hence Garrett's desire to tackle the role at this stage in her career. Now one would think that La voix humaine is a piece that could be staged on a low budget (in this era of austerity) - all you need is a table, chair and telephone against black drapes. I must briefly touch upon the 2006 production which featured a self-contained apartment with a modern fitted bathroom on stage. My abiding image is of a distraught, bare-foot Joan Rodgers clad in a skimpy white chemise throwing up into the bidet. All these visual images were a distraction and only succeeded in diluting a piece whose directness of emotional expression is compelling.
Opera North's production team of director Aletta Collins, set designer Giles Cadle and costume designer Gabrielle Dalton still seem to think that a busy stage picture is de rigeur. The beginning looked promising as the house tabs arose to reveal nothing but an empty stage with Garrett, in a Marilyn Monroe wig, sitting petrified at a dressing table facing the audience; her upper body and face framed by the white lightbulbs around the mirror. It was an electrifying few moments before that spooky trilling motif played on the xylophone broke the silence to signify the ring of the black telephone. I had expected that this was going to be the setting for the entire forty minutes of the opera, with attention firmly focussed on the performer; but no, the curtains behind Garrett rose to reveal a theatrical star dressing room with a corner shower unit (but no bidet!!) to stage right and several fine gowns hanging from the walls. Garrett looked splendid, with the fading glamour of a legendary star as she paced across this lonely dressing room space. Then when she is next pleading with her lover on the phone, we see him sitting opposite through the mirror as if they were conversing via webcam - an image which kills the audience imagination stone dead - even if he is the same swine who abandons Dido later in the evening.
Towards the end of the show, Garrett steps through the shower to re-appear in her glamorous frock and blonde wig behind the mirror and again facing the audience. Her wigless alter ego, with back to the audience, is slumped across the dressing table after having emptied a bottle of pills. All very ingenious you might think, but Garrett didn't really need it. Allowing that this was the first night, I still have to say that I found her performance to be a little bit detached - more soubrette than femme fatale. Garrett's experience in the musical theatre world has strengthened her credentials as a singing actress; she has an attractive timbre, the diction was good, her colouring of words subtle and yet she failed to move me. The voice was not quite large enough to knock out the stalls and I did hear comments from people seated nearby who were unable to hear all her words. The performance was sung in English with no surtitles to refer to; Poulenc's sumptuous orchestration is, on the whole, considerate to the singer. No blame for any inaudibility on the part of the singer should be attached to conductor Wyn Davies who did his best to maintain optimum balance between pit and stage; or to the Orchestra of Opera North for their atmospherically nuanced playing of this chilling score. Garrett was warmly applauded and cheered at the end, even to the extent of a lone voice behind me shouting out "Now do it all again!!" I couldn't help feeling that had the Yorkshire lass being gifted with a staging that allowed her to focus solely on character portrayal and the all-important projection of the text, she would have made a much stronger impression.
Back in 1978, Dido and Aeneas was paired with Poulenc's wacky opéra bouffe, Les mamelles de Tirésias. This time around, the thematic link is stronger in that the heroines of both operas are forsaken women. Aletta Collins has set the piece in the present day with rather crude set design by Giles Cadle which reminded me less of the court of Queen Dido and more of the tunnel-like truck and lorry deck of a roll-on roll-off ferry. A large double bed covered in a “Queen-size" continental quilt offers the only visual relief from this drab structure. Collins has also choreographed the production and there is much to admire in the sensual movements that she has devised for dancers Soledad de la Haz, Katie Lusby and Lucy Ridley. Things however get a bit confusing when Heather Shipp's Sorceress produces three dancing identikit Didos all wearing the same scarlet cocktail dresses and auburn wigs as Pamela Helen Stephen's tragic Queen. Apart from this, and lighting designer Andreas Fuchs' awesome thunder and lightning effects, there was little sense of magic and sorcery - an important element of this opera. Having the witches costumed in above-the-knee black petticoats (re-cycled from La voix humaine) and copies of Aeneas's navy commander's jacket certainly didn't really help to create any.
Fortunately, we are left with the music to savour; Purcell's miraculously concise one-hour long score is gloriously realised by an accomplished cast led by Pamela Helen Stephen. I thought that her Giulio Cesare here last year was underpowered but Dido brings to the fore the singer's vocal strengths. There was a rich, creamy quality to her singing, the phrasing was supple and she imbued the English text with meaning. Dido's Act l aria "Ah, Belinda I am pressed with torment" overlaid with grief and sorrow. "When I am laid in earth" was delivered with a sense of quiet dignity and resignation that I found very moving. The role of Aeneas settles easily within the range of the young New Zealand baritone Phillip Rhodes, dressed in the uniform of a naval commander. His dark coloured voice possesses an attractive rugged quality - an ideal vocal match for Helen Stephen's Dido. A pity that Purcell does not give Aeneas more to do. Amy Freston's tall and soubrettish Belinda was bright and airy, her lovely "Shake the cloud from off your brow" coming across with the vivacity of an operetta number. Heather Shipp's lissom Sorceress had echoes of her portrayal of Mad Margaret (nothing wrong in that) baring her teeth in a wolf-like grin that was quite alarming as she invokes her fellow enchantresses Rebecca Moon, Louise Mott and Claire Pascoe (First, Second and Third Witches respectively) to join her in plotting the Queen's destruction. Shipp moves around like a lynx and colours her agile and vibrant mezzo with malice. Tenor Nicholas Watts as the Sailor creates an enjoyable cameo with his bright-toned performance laced with cynicism of "Come Away, fellow sailors, come away". A riveting standout performance comes from the counter tenor Jake Arditti as a cross-dressing Spirit who, with translucent purity of tone, carries the command of Jove for Aeneas to leave Carthage.
It was a good idea to place the twenty two choristers from the Opera North Chorus behind the orchestra in the pit, adding weight to the voices and giving their demonic choruses of laughter an eerie resonance as if from hell itself.
The orchestra of around thirty five includes harpsichord continuo, theorbo, baroque guitar and lute for period authenticity. Conductor Wyn Davies draws a dry, acerbic clarity from the instruments in keeping with historical performance practice. Allied to his lively conducting of Purcell's gem of English opera, I must say that this seems entirely appropriate. Pamela Helen Stephen's singing of Dido - with more vibrato than is currently fashionable - embellishes this arid soundscape, demonstrating that there is a place for a mix of performance styles.
So, with high musical values but an uneven production quality, this double bill of Poulenc and Purcell is nonetheless an enjoyable experience. After Leeds Grand, the company tours to Newcastle Theatre Royal, Belfast Grand Opera House, Salford Lowry Theatre, and Nottingham Theatre Royal.
Photographs © Tristram Kenton