Jommelli’s Didone abbandonata in Basel

The name of the baroque composer Niccolò Jommelli might not be familiar to you. It wasn’t to me but he wrote over sixty operas and if some of them are as good as Didone abbandonata, which I have just seen in Basel, then there is a treasure trove worth picking. His music contains appealing melodic ideas sufficiently ornamented to display vocal agility but also an emphasis on the dramatic cut and thrust of recitative, sometimes with interesting orchestra accompaniment, for example in the final encounter between Dido and Aeneas. The score is particularly rich in the writing for woodwind and brass and has an extraordinary ending: rising, penetrating chords are excitingly strung out to represent the mounting flames as Carthage is set ablaze. The libretto by Metastasio, used by numerous composers, makes an interesting contrast to those used by Purcell and Berlioz. The emphasis here is on the loneliness of the Queen as she attempts to resolve the dilemma between retention of political power and love for the Trojan warrior.

There are many ways of presenting baroque opera. Lotte de Beer’s idea of staging it in the round was imaginative and proved to be most successful. The performers moved between two spaces. The inner arena, a raised platform dissecting the auditorium, was used principally for Dido and her encounters. It was here that she exerted her dominion aided by a team of regimented retainers who, with stylised movements, responded to her every whim. The outer space amidst the audience allowed those plotting intrigue to distance themselves from her isolated presence. The contours of this environment combined with the expressionist physical action and  strong lighting effects generated a dramatic intensity which was enhanced, rather than weakened, by the succession of da capo arias.

A team of excellent young singers milked the piece for all that it was worth. As Dido, Nicole Heaston gave an extraordinary performance, flouncing up and down the platform, singing with great passion and shifting in emotion from arrogance, contempt and anger though amorous ardour to vulnerable despair. If at times she was in her exasperation, irony and pathos too worldly for a proud queen that was surely the point, for it communicated the lot of ordinary women torn between ambition and love. Two Koreans headed the rest of the case – what would European opera houses do without them? Vince Yi was a wistful, ambivalent Aeneas, a dreamer rather than a man of action, his light counter tenor communicating diffidence rather than resolution. In compete contrast, Hyunjai Marco Lee, as Jarbas the aggressive suitor for Dido’s hand and kingdom, launched his steely tenor with unrelenting force. Impressive, too, Sara Brady as Dido’s sister Selene, secretly in love with Aeneas. Her “will he? -won’t he?” vocalised leave taking of the hero was one of the emotional highlights of the evening.

Daniela Dolci leading her own baroque band Musica Fiorita from the side brought all the musical elements satisfyingly together. A wonderful performance proving yet again that you do not need a cast of star singers, nor a familiar piece, for a startlingly good experience in the opera house.