Teatru Manoel is soon set to raise the curtain on Dido and Aeneas as this year’s beloved annual opera – and Malta’s historic national theatre has overcome all odds to bring it to the stage. Laura Bonnici finds out more. 

A tragic tale of love and loss, royalty and witches, stormy seas and magical misdirection. Although this sounds like the makings of a modern hit movie, in fact, this dramatic story thrilled its first audiences on stage more than 300 years ago. 

Such are the universal and timeless themes of Dido and Aeneas, the first – and ultimately, the only – opera written by great English Baroque composer Henry Purcell, based on a libretto by Nahum Tate. The opera was inspired by book IV of Virgil’s poem The Aeneid, with Purcell translating both the epic tale and its deeper ideas regarding death and deception for a then-contemporary audience. 

Francesca Buhagiar as Dido. Photo: Rob Matthew GolfeoFrancesca Buhagiar as Dido. Photo: Rob Matthew Golfeo

The story follows Dido, the widowed Queen of Carthage, and her lover, the Trojan Prince Aeneas, who is shipwrecked on his way to Italy where he will found a new Troy. Witches secretly plot Dido’s destruction. While the royal couple are hunting, the Sorceress conjures a storm and one of her coven impersonates Mercury.  

This false Mercury tells Aeneas he must leave Dido and sail for Italy, who parts from her and prepares to leave with his sailors. Distraught and heartbroken, Dido takes her own life, with her death lamented by mourning cupids in one of the opera’s most famously beautiful pieces. 

Today, Dido and Aeneas remains a much-loved classic of the opera world, with countless sell-out productions worldwide delighting audiences through the centuries, much as it did during its first performance around 1689. Indeed, it is the timelessness and resilience of Dido and Aeneas that make it the ideal candidate as the next annual opera at Teatru Manoel – an opera that, this year, is being staged in a world still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dido Costume Sketch by Costume Designer Luke AzzopardiDido Costume Sketch by Costume Designer Luke Azzopardi

Although the famed annual opera at Malta’s historic theatre is a longstanding local tradition, for Dido and Aeneas, the staging process has had to rapidly – and radically – adapt to the evolving situation surrounding COVID-19, while maintaining the safety of all involved.  

Fortunately, while there may have been as many unpredictable and stormy seas in the staging process as there are in the classic’s story, the creative team navigating these choppy waters are highly experienced in the endeavour. 

With director Denise Mulholland at the helm – a name now synonymous with opera in Malta both onstage and behind the scenes – the team has tackled the challenges of staging the opera in such difficult times head-on.  

Cathy Lawlor as The Sorceress. Photo: Rob Matthew GolfeoCathy Lawlor as The Sorceress. Photo: Rob Matthew Golfeo

Adapting the piece to the ever-changing government safety protocols concerning the virus, Mulholland has worked with the necessary physical distance between the characters, with the rare moments of physical touch adding an extra layer of significance to the story. 

Joining Mulholland in reimaging Dido and Aeneas for COVID-19 times are other big names in Malta’s arts scene who bring a fresh vision as well as stunning visuals to the piece.  

While Andrew Borg Wirth has designed the set, Luke Azzopardi has created the costumes in a vibrant mix of Hellenism and contemporary, with North African influences. And with lighting design by Moritz Zavan Stoeckle, movement coordinated by Emma Loftus, and projected images created by cinematographer Matthew Muscat Drago, there is an extraordinary team of experts in their respective fields behind the scenes at Dido and Aeneas

On stage, there is also a strong cast of established names and newcomers from The Monteverdi Project to tell the much-loved tale. The Monteverdi Project is a group of singers supported by Teatru Manoel who train in Baroque music with renowned Maestro Marco Mencoboni and soprano Gillian Zammit.  

Members of the Project in the ensemble include Francesca Buhagiar as Dido, alongside Cathy Lawlor, Nadia Vella, Francesca Aquilina, Analise Mifsud, Alison Gatt and Tom Armitage, as well as the opera’s traditional chorus. They are joined by Cliff Zammit Stevens as Aeneas.  

Maestro Mencoboni will be conducting the opera, with the musicians from the Valletta Baroque Ensemble under his baton. 

Dido and Aeneas will be staged at Teatru Manoel, Valletta on 23, 24, 26 and February 27, 2021 at 8pm. It is suitable for audiences aged 12 and above. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.teatrumanoel.com.mt, call on +356 2124 6389 or email on bookings.mt@teatrumanoel.mt. 

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