Dido & Aeneas: Dancing to Opera

Oper Graz’s ballet director Darrel Toulon attempts a musically modern opera/ballet

Darrel Toulon choreogrphed DNA to Christian Jost’s separate musical piece | Photo: Oper Graz, Werner Kmetitsch

For all the Italian and Russian opera that followed, one of the first masterpieces of opera is in English, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

In the dance world, Dido and Aeneas has received lavish attention in the last two decades with major dance versions from Mark Morris (1989), Sasha Waltz (2005) and Wayne McGregor (2009, Royal Ballet).

Unlike most later opera music, with its steady and simple meter, Purcell’s baroque score is ideally suited to dance. And two years ago Oper Graz’s ballet director Darrel Toulon decided to take advantage of his resources and present a new version, mixing opera and dance.

Toulon was also deeply dissatisfied with Nathum Tate’s original libretto for Dido and Aeneas: The opera was all about Dido, he complained. “It doesn’t give Aeneas a fair hearing. Aeneas did not arbitrarily abandon Dido. He was on a higher mission, commanded by Jupiter to leave.”

With a new concept in hand Toulon, with Oper Graz intendant Elisabeth Sobotka, looked for a composer to help expand Purcell’s original score, too short to stand as a full opera evening,  setting a modern idiom in apposition to Purcell, still using primarily the same set of instruments.

Fatally, Sobotka chose the much decorated German composer Christian Jost. Despite months of discussion with Toulon, Jost ignored the ballet director’s idea for an expanded Dido and Aeneas and chose to develop his own concept.

Under the weight of Jost’s creative egocentrism, Toulon’s concept of a new Dido and Aeneas quickly drowned. In its place remains a classical performance of Purcell’s music, followed by DNA, Jost’s music choreographed by Toulon. Separating the two works puts Toulon’s version of Dido and Aeneas head to head against Sasha Waltz’s staging, which begins with a huge backlit tank where the dancers swim. Toulon offers us his entire cast of dancers frozen as on a Grecian urn.

First a woman in a long gown enters (Dianne Gray), a flaming torch in hand. She lights the wall sculpture and stares into it seeking meaning. The sculpture comes to life and disappears while, the woman leads in singers Dido, Belinda and two other women. One of the pillars rotates to reveal a white staircase where Dido, the slender Nezarin Ezanin sings ominously, “I need him too much.”

Aeneas’ male crew enter from the back in simple black pants and naked torsos; the soft, warm light bathing them in half silhouettes. The steps are modern and when the singer witches enter, switch to floor work, with the male dancers then moving like snakes crawling forward.

Toulon’s witches are radiant, malicious creatures. The sorceress is a scintillating Kristina Antonie Fehrs, admirably supported by Tatjana Miyus and Xiaoyi Xu.

Midway through their appearance, the witches all rise up as four-legged hellish creatures, supported by the sailor ghouls. When the witches disappear, we are left with the powerful image of Aeneas’ sailors ravishing Carthaginian women against the pillars.

Dianne Gray has never been in better form, leading the corps-de-balletin a group scene and helping the lovely Dido to dance. The conviction of her steps and focus brings Dido’s court to life.

The witches played by Kristina Antonie Fehrs, Tatjana Miyus and Xiaoyi Xu | Photo: Oper Graz, Werner Kmetitsch

For the most part, Alfred Peter’s stage design leans hard to tasteful and minimalist. One episode does shock when we are flung from ancient Carthage to post-Elizabethan England as a granite pillars twists to reveal the mast, rigging and crow’s nest of a 17th century English frigate, contemporary with Purcell.

At the top of the mast appears a slender, beautiful woman. Lasciviously, she sensually moves her finger around in her mouth before measuring the wind, and then begins to sing. It is again Fehrs as the sorceress.When Fehrs descends, she also dances splendidly among the dancers. Toulon’s concept of dancing singers works brilliantly here.

Toulon’s Dido and Aeneas comes to a resounding finale. The whole pillar bursts into live flame when Dido sings her final lament.  Musically, the choir is splendid. And while individual dance moments were convincing, the choreographic language was inconsistent.

DNA used the same basic staging as Dido but with the pillars at the back of the stage. The costumes, though, were very different. Two lines of dancers faced one another in dark blue tunics, like something out of the Matrix.

Jost’s music started and remained severe – a cross between Stravinsky/Shostakovich. All the dancers moved together, meeting as couples with some interesting lifts but the identical movements felt more like a chorus line.

Dianne Gray and Michal remained alone. They rose and fell into one another, rolling on stage in a vivid coupling as e.e. cummings’ metaphysical lyrics rang out in the vast theatre: “You are divine! said he, (you are mine! said she)”.

The second duet was less successful; a very pale Jana Drgonova danced with muscular, black dancer Serge Desroches. Alas, the choreography fell straight into the cliché of the white lily, bent and lifted by the muscular man of ebony. Their duet was a cross between Forsythe and jazz dancing, hinting even at show dancing. Both are fine dancers: it felt like an opportunity lost.

Now three pairs showed us the torments of love. Michael Munoz was given space to liven the stage with his extreme movements and dramatic flips. While the choreography was sexy, the dance didn’t match the intensity of e.e. cummings’ most passionate love lyrics. Strangely here the music took a Star Trek overture turn, complete with tremolo soprano chorus.

Fortunately just then Norikazu Aoki and Sarah Schoch wandered in, dancing out sex like death to the words of “in spite of everything”. Schoch and Aoki really connected and one felt the vertiginous despair of doomed passion. The stage spun while the two danced like a metaphor for the world, which doesn’t stop turning for sentimental life. Schoch at last left behind her cold good looks and posed persona to bend herself in every direction and dance with her whole being. Aoki astonished us with his lyrical, tormented movement.

Finally Schoch leaves Aoki alone, his gesticulation descending into madness.

There is a coda between tousle-headed Michael Zabavik and Dianne Gray. Sadly, this time Zabavik seemed more in love with himself and paid Gray little attention.

e.e. cummings’ sensual lyrics do make fine opera. Yet musically Jost leaves us to wonder if music has made any progress since 1936. Despite some high points of individual dance performance, the DNA choreography misses a consistent enough aesthetic to attain permanence. A deeply flawed but intensely pleasurable programme.


Dido & Aeneas / DNA
Through 12 July, 19:30
Opernhaus Graz
Kaiser-Josef-Platz 10, 8010 Graz

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