I have never enjoyed a single opera I have ever seen. I’ve been to a grand total of three in my entire life. The first was the 2005 Royal Opera House production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. I was invited by one of those very very middle class people who I suspect thought my working class life would be enriched by this experience of high culture. They bought me a dainty little flute of champagne that cost £25. I remember at the time thinking I could buy a whole bottle of Moet from Tesco and have change for the price of that single glass. They told me to look out for a gorgeously heartbreaking bit. The moment arrived and I was not only utterly unmoved, but it completely passed me by. The only reason I realised it had happened is because I found the increased sound of snivelling by which I was suddenly surrounded to be intensely irritating.
My second trip to the opera was last year for Porgy and Bess at the Coliseum last year. I described it as the best opera I’d ever seen, which wasn’t untrue – it was better than the my previous outing (it’s Gershwin, after all), but still not especially enjoyable. Opera, I think, is a victim of its reputation. Performed in great ostentatious venues where lavish gowns and vintage fur stoles are worn while people quaff painfully overpriced dribbles of alcohol. Yes, opera is a victim of it’s reputation – and its reputation isn’t a good one.
The English National Opera and Unicorn Theatre’s co-production of Dido, at first sight, offers a refreshing alternative to that impenetrable norm. The performance space is contemporary and the design is unfussy. Dido’s cage-like bedroom is set on castors so as to easily make way for a picnic scene where a green faux lawn is rolled out and trees parachute in from the ceiling. The cast play keepy-uppy and frisbee in the scene transitions. The costumes, too, are distinctly unpretentious – it’s all corduroy dungarees, ankara fabric shirts, lots of jeans and a few chic dresses. If I hadn’t seen members of the cast milling about in the foyer after the show, I’d have assumed they were all performing in their own clothes. This all combines to a casual effect, like the objective here is to be the absolute opposite of the sort of intimidating the opera usually is.
But that’s where the effort ends. As soon as the first note is sung, the action is rendered inaccessible and the narrative almost entirely incomprehensible. The abstract, modern staging has great potential but suffers from a lack of direction, which doesn’t work hard enough to push the specifics of the story. It’s one of an African queen (Carthage is a city in Tunisia), who falls in love and has her heart broken so badly that she takes her own life. But I’ll admit I had to read the synopsis in order to figure out what actually happened after the performance. The music is a great saviour here. Unicorn Theatre artistic director Purni Morell’s production uses the original score and libretto, which is perhaps a hindrance in a production aimed at under 18s, but sets the mood of each scene wonderfully and is effective at tracking Dido’s range of emotions.
This story includes some inspired choices, but is held hostage by the wider creative decisions of the production. My search for an enjoyable opera continues.
Dido is on at the Unicorn Theatre till 2nd June. More info here.