Death of Dido
A portion of Guercino’s 1631 painting Death of Dido

Composers have reimagined, reworked, adapted, imitated, quoted, and incorporated older works and styles into their music for hundreds of years, from Mozart’s reorchestration of Handel’s Messiah to Leif Inge’s 9 Beet Stretch, Mauricio Kagel’s Ludwig van, Anders Hillborg’s Kongsgaard Variations, and many more.

On Nov. 30, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra presented Dido’s Ghost by the British composer Errollyn Wallen, which incorporates Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Wallen’s opera has a number of excellent musical and dramatic moments but wasn’t completely convincing, in part because of issues with blending the older composition with the newer and in part because the whole thing might work better if it were longer and had more new music.

PBO is among the co-commissioners of Dido’s Ghost, and this performance, the American premiere of the work, included conductor John Butt and several of the singers from the world premiere, as well as the original direction by Frederic Wake-Walker. The singer-songwriter and novelist Wesley Stace, also known as John Wesley Harding, wrote the libretto, which is based on Ovid’s account of the later life of Anna, Dido’s sister. That is, Dido’s Ghost picks up where most operas based on Virgil’s Aeneid leave off.

Errollyn Wallen
Errollyn Wallen | Credit: Azzurra Primavera

In Ovid’s telling, Anna is shipwrecked off the coast of Italy and encounters Aeneas, who takes her in. His wife Lavinia is jealous of Anna and wants to kill her, but she turns into a river and survives in that form. Partway through the opera’s version of this story, a troupe of players arrives at Lavinia’s command and begins a performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The new opera is both wrapped around and intertwined with the old one.

Wallen isn’t stylistically consistent in the way that Purcell is, so the ear never quite becomes accustomed to her music, and one result is that the new and old sit uncomfortably together. Sometimes Wallen’s music is harsh and jagged, as for a storm scene. Sometimes it’s quite beautiful, as in a chorus of initially just women that’s accompanied by a pair of cellos and a bass, with more strings coming in when the men join. In a scene by the river where Anna dwells, the string figuration murmurs much like that of the trio “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

Stace’s contributions match Nahum Tate’s concise and poetic libretto for Purcell but unfortunately lack Tate’s elegance. Much of Stace’s libretto doesn’t sit well with Wallen’s music, and some portions sound difficult to sing. Some lines, like “Don’t get caught in the crossfire,” sound anachronistic as well.

The orchestra sounded considerably more comfortable and confident in the Purcell, its natural element. The new music would have benefitted from the fuller sound of a larger orchestra. The varied percussion, played by Allen Biggs, lent notable sonic variety to the score, and the inclusion of an electric bass, played by Marlon Martinez, was a nice touch as well. The old and the new didn’t always mesh convincingly, either dramatically or musically, and yet there was much to admire in the performances.

Nicole Heaston
Nicole Heaston sang the roles of Dido and Anna | Credit: Fadil Berisha

Wake-Walker’s straightforward yet sensitive direction clarified the action and always seemed apt, particularly when soprano Nicole Heaston, playing both Dido and Anna, switched characters before your eyes. Heaston sang beautifully and was poignant in both roles. Allison Cook’s powerful, slashing mezzo and striking stage presence vividly brought to life Lavinia’s jealousy and fear. The eye-catching and sympathetic Nardus Williams brought a gleaming soprano and splendid musical articulation to the role of Belinda (Purcell and Tate’s name for Anna).

Jacob Perry’s sweet tenor worked well for Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, and Jonathan Woody was good as Elymas (Lavinia’s spy) and the Sorceress. Leandra Ramm and Kyle Tingzon, both altos in the Philharmonia Chorale, were brilliant witches.

Bass-baritone Matthew Brook gave a splendid performance as Aeneas. Firm-voiced and emotional, occasionally deploying a tender falsetto, he also got the last solo word in Wallen’s opera, which, in its greatest dramatic coup, as it combines with Purcell’s composition, assigns “Thy hand, Belinda … When I am laid in earth” to Aeneas.