Submerged in symbolic sand

The Brussels-based company Peeping Tom premiered their production of Henry Purcell’s baroque opera “Dido and Aeneas” to a live audience in December 2021. Blending song, theatre and dance in a palace setting, the show climaxes with what appears to be a deluge of sand on stage. But all is not what it seems … BTR went backstage at the Lille Opera with director Franck Chartier and head of technology Mathieu Lecoutre to find out more.

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

The ill-fated romance of Dido and Aeneas – as Henry Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate portrayed it – is set in Carthage. This is where the shipwrecked Trojan hero meets Queen Dido, igniting an epic, unequivocal passion that is doomed to end in tragedy. At the Lille Opera, Franck Chartier presents the story as readable on two levels: as reality and projection; as an intimate and a public experience. Here, Dido is an aging matriarch who identifies with the eponymous character in Purcell’s opera but whose passion is frustrated.

A wealthy and powerful woman, she uses her position to live out her fantasies in her daily life. As Chartier says, “She makes the orchestra play Dido and Aeneas for her every day. She hired the musicians especially and drives her overworked maestro to grown ‘No more Purcell!’ Yet everything she does is subject to public scrutiny; she depends on public approval.”

Dido’s ambivalent situation is reflected in the equally realistic and symbolic stage set. A group of singers perform from a gallery, embodying both a commentating chorus, like in ancient Greek drama, and a parliament, mediating between the people and the queen. These singing people’s representatives look ever on as the queen wanders back and forth between her drawing room and bedchamber or takes to the nearby pulpit to hold forth to her subjects.

The pulpit is suspended directly over the palace, which faces ever more elemental onslaughts as the evening progresses. Wind, fog, and sand descend upon the queen’s bizarre world through the three high casement windows on the left of the stage. Outside, below the palace, the people are in uproar while inside the tragedy is visualized in these elemental deluges, eventually entering not only through the three windows but also through numerous hidden hatches and doors that open all over the stage, one by one. one. Finally, a steady stream of what looks like sand pours into the palace, threatening to completely submerge it. On the video of the production, filmed at the Grand Théâtre de Genève (for the piece’s premiere to an online audience in May 2021), the substance appears to be a kind of grain – perhaps indicating a peasants’ revolt outside the palace?

Peeping Tom are known for the realism-tinged-with-surrealism of their stage sets and narratives alike. “Dido and Aeneas” marks a departure from their usual approach of creating original pieces from a blend of dance, physical theatre, and special effects, and their first adaptation of an existing repertory work. With their debut opera, they have cast a fresh look at the genre and its hierarchies.

On a tour of the set, director Franck Chartier and Lille Opera’s head of technology Mathieu Lecoutre disclosed the true nature of the mystery substance that pours through the palace windows. “We couldn’t use sand because the dancers needed to be able to move easily in and out of it.” In other words, it needed to be light and airy, not heavy and damp. Chartier and his scenographer Justine Bougerol found what they were looking for in a DIY store. The stuff of their dreams, which brings Dido’s nightmare to life in the final scene, is granulate-form vermiculite. In everyday life it is used as loose-fill insulation in house walls and attics. (…)


BTR Ausgabe 2 2022
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 168
von Thomas Hahn

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