In his interesting historical performance note in the programme, Oxford Youth Choirs' musical director Richard Vendome says that "many productions of Dido and Aeneas lack structure because the dancing is... omitted altogether". So naturally this St John the Evangelist-set production from Oxford Girls' Choir, musicians from Instruments of Time and Truth and with harpsichord continuo from Mr Vendome himself was a fully staged and costumed affair, with a cast of just under 50.
This staging included the sometimes omitted 1689 Prologue which focuses on the God of the Sun Phoebus and his colleague Venus, the Goddess of Love. The former was straight into action and played by James Gant of Magdalen College School, a rather handsome presence in a suitably gold, filmy robe. How pleasant for Mr Gant to be able to tell his grandchildren that as a teenager he not only played the Sun God, but that deity's allegorical counterpart, King William of Orange, and did so with more than a little style and in a clear tenor voice. They are soon joined by Spring (Miriam Taylor, shining in a short but tricky song). A chorus of Tritons wielding tridents and Nereids brandishing Greek urn cut-outs followed, accompanied by four male courtiers from whom a bit more vocal oomph might have been welcome to avoid being swamped by the throng of sopranos and altos all around them. Already the eye was beguiled by the colourful Greek costumes, indicative of the ambition of this production.
Act I now got off to a strong start thanks to the optimistic, cheery presence of Belinda, Queen Dido's handmaiden (the excellent Harriet Spring, singing boldly throughout) and the sweet tone of Daisy Livesey as the second maid. The dances here in the betrothal scene and elsewhere had been elegantly choreographed by Ian Brener – an authentic, formal rhythm to the steps was constantly evident – but the actual delivery by the corps of first courtiers and then witches sometimes lacked a bit of zip and even on occasion concentration, with some of the dancers inclined to let their gaze wander aimlessly rather than projecting focus.
The Gothic look of the sorceress (black and green) and witches (black and red) in Act II reminded me of Macbeth's weird sisters as they occasioned a mood change, while later the half-dozen tipsy sailors in green velvet, swinging pint tankards, introduced a note of comedy into the midst of this tragic cycle. Lucia Boué's sorceress was an amusingly saucy rather than menacing figure. She sang powerfully, ably backed up by her acolytes Elspeth Horn and Eve Boutet. The way in which later they observed the denouement of their meddlesome handiwork from the chancel was a nice staging touch, as were the aerial green, white and red flags in The Ships scene.
But the best was left to last. Here Dido, earlier often an onlooker rather than protagonist, came into her own in her passionate parting from Aeneas and its aftermath. There are two very beautiful chorales in this last palace scene, dealing with first despair and then death, and the choruses delivered them with feeling and clear articulation of the libretto. Ania Beauclerk found the necessary tone of imperious dignity for her final tragic scenes. I had asked her beforehand about the challenge of her famous lament, and she had told me of the careful preparation she had devoted to the role and her closing aria. She delivered it with aplomb as the descending chromatic lines and brief crescendos wound round their rich shroud of strings, and her voice, perfectly hitting the top notes, conveyed a piercing poignancy in the church's gathering gloom. The final, formal dance round the dead queen emphasised how this precious jewel of an opera can glitter afresh with each new generation.