Opera going south

A Peckham production of "Dido and Aeneas" is not quite bold enough

Dido and Aeneas, Bussey Building, Peckham. 7.30pm Thursday 10 January 2013

Although still more synonymous with knife-crime than culture, Peckham is enjoying something of a sea-change at the moment. Last year saw the Royal Court venture south for a series of performances in their new “Theatre Local” project, and for one night during the summer a multi-storey car-park became the unlikely stage for a remixed performance of Stravinsky’s iconic ballet The Rite of Spring. The hub of the action is Peckham’s Bussey Building – a venue best-known for its raves, but now developing an alter-ego as the progressive arts venue of choice south of the river. But while the Royal Court’s brand of contemporary theatre is a major step, how much greater a leap is the venue’s latest project: 18th century opera.

In many ways Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the perfect opera for today. Tate’s English libretto may have the odd metaphorical flight of fancy, but is otherwise straightforward and easily understood, even without the help of surtitles. The themes – love and betrayal – are classics, and the whole cycle from infatuation to despair and death takes just under an hour to run its course, leaving plenty of time for a drink and debrief afterwards.

So why did I leave Opera In Space’s performance so confused?

It’s always going to a challenge performing opera in unusual spaces. I’ve attended performances over the years in warehouses, office-buildings, pubs, gardens, boats and even a nightclub, and each unusual venue only makes me more grateful for the classic opera house, with its controlled acoustics and excellent sight-lines. While the promenade elements of this Dido give everyone a fair shot at seeing at least some of the show, a directorial preference for on-floor writhings means that large chunks are completely obscured, and the traverse-style setup in the main staging area effectively prevents a third of the audience from seeing all but the merest glimpse of the action.

The concepts too are decidedly unclear, not aided by some rather gawky tableaux vivants by way of “overture”, juxtaposing bursts of African drumming with blandly symbolic stage-pictures. Spoken text is also rather unnecessarily included later in the show (which exists in that generic no-time, no-place of contemporary theatre), adding little by transforming the Carthaginian Queen and her ladies into schoolgirls chattering about their A level studies. If director Richard Pyros had a coherent vision for the piece then he kept it concealed.

Pasticcio was a favourite genre of the 18th century opera house – essentially stitching together the best bits from various composers’ works into a single dramatic work – and Opera In Space make a clever nod to this in their interpolation of jazz songs into Purcell’s score. But I would have loved to see smarter choices than the unambiguous “Misty” (in case we hadn’t realised that Dido was smitten with her charisma-free Aeneas) and Jerome Kern’s “All The Things that You Are”, which suffered from an awkward arrangement and uneasily low key.

There is much to like here though. The singing is generally solid, with the cast led by Carleen Ebbs’ polished Belinda, singing elegantly and idiomatically in ensemble with Marie Degodet (Second Woman) and Sylvia Gallant’s Dido. Gallant is at the higher end of mezzos, which lends her despairing queen a youthfulness but also a lightness that Purcell’s writing happily accommodates. Adam Kowalczyk did his best with Aeneas, but struggled to make much impression dramatically in the space of his limited music.

There is a saucily revisionist take on the Sailors’ “Come Away” that works beautifully, and some effective atmospherics for the Sorceress and her lair. But the chief delight though is the instrumental work from harpsichordist Katie de la Matter and her skeleton band. Not for nothing was Purcell the master of the ground bass (a riff, by any other name); his music has such excellent bone-structure that even when you strip away all the usual layers of colour you are still left with something beautiful, especially when stylishly articulated here by cellist Poppy Walshaw and violinist Eleanor Harrison.

It’s hard to leave Opera In Space’s Dido and Aeneas and not feel like you’ve just had an evening of cut-price Punchdrunk. The promenade setup and venue are great, and cry out for something just a little bolder, a little less politely safe. There’s an uneasy compromise here between traditionalism and experimentation which hasn’t quite found its balance. Would I return for another production? Absolutely. But on current form it may take a few more tries to make this worthy and interesting project the enjoyable experience it could so easily be.

An image from Opera in Space's "Dido and Aeneas". Credit: Sally Neville

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle