In the charming setting of The Grange in Hampshire, the eponymous Festival has brought together Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Though not usually paired in a double bill, these two masterpieces of baroque and beyond complement one another well. In fact, they are mirror images. The Gluck starts with a tragic death and ends happily; the Purcell is the reverse.
Gluck’s opera, first performed in Vienna in 1762, had a great effect on what came later in Germany and particularly impressed Wagner. It eschewed the earlier style of vocal embellishment and virtuosity, and took from French opera the use of accompanied recitative.
Its story is simple. Orpheus loses his beloved Euridice — in this production in modern dress she drops dead at their wedding celebrations — and vows to get her back. The personification of love, Amore, offers to help him but warns that his return journey from the underworld will be fraught. Orpheus can neither look at her, nor explain why he cannot do so.
The power of love takes him past the fearsome guardians in the dark world of Erebus, and he finds himself in the Elysian fields where Euridice is brought to him. Taking her by the hand he leads her away from the realm of death to that of life, but her joy turns to anguish as he will not look at her. Does he no longer love her? The agony this induces in Orpheus proves too much and he turns to look, thereby killing her instantly. The fault now lies with him, and he can do nothing except take his own life. Fortunately Amore’s miraculous reappearance puts all to rights, creating a happy ending where the wedding party can resume.
In Daniel Slater’s excellent production, the fearsome world of Erebus is well staged. From three doors on a higher level than the stage fall various furies, phantoms and spirits, enough to defeat anyone. Amore appears on a swing hung from the heights by red ropes, and the youthful vigour of the performers carries all before it. Life beats death in this happy ending.
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, composed some 80 years earlier, is entirely different, as is the production. Here the young people are part of a modern world of gossip and tittle tattle in a great seaside resort (Carthage) in North Africa. Newspaper headlines emphasise luxury living, and T-shirts later on say ‘Ditch Dido’. This is, of course, what Aeneas has done when duty to his country calls him away — a situation contrived by the Sorceress whose aim is to drive Dido and Aeneas apart. By the time he reverses his decision to leave, events have tipped her over the edge. After Dido’s famous Lament in Act 3, she realises the world holds nothing more for her. In the arms of her loyal friend Belinda, she takes her own life.
Heather Lowe sang splendidly in the roles of Orfeo (originally written for a castrato) and Dido. Alexandra Oomens made a lovely Euridice, as well as Belinda in the Dido, with James Newby a strong and convincing Aeneas. Caroline Blair was an attractive Amore in the Orfeo, Helen Charlston a firm Sorceress in the Dido, and the whole cast sang beautifully in the choral numbers. This was a treat of baroque opera, with the intriguing and influential Gluck to start the evening. I liked the modern setting for works that can sometimes seem rather dated, and the musicality of the performance was wonderful under the excellent Harry Christophers.