To Salzburg this week for a short project at the annual music festival, indisputably one of the most prestigious events in the international classical music calendar. Salzburg is renowned internationally as one of the temples of the Austro-German musical tradition: visitors are rarely allowed to forget that this was Mozart's birthplace, and since its foundation in 1920 by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstal (among others) the festival has had a long historical association with the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. It's also a major operatic destination, attracting A-list casts and pre-eminent directors for state-of-the-art productions of (in the case of this year's festival) Mozart, Gluck, Strauss, Verdi, and Wolfgang Rihm. Within the astounding, almost overwhelming riches of the festival programme (six full weeks, often featuring three or four different events each day), there is nevertheless space for smaller-scale fare, and this year the Balthasar-Neumann-Chor and -Ensemble were invited to present a single performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, with the title roles taken by rising stars Kate Lindsay and Benedict Nelson, and supporting roles taken by members of the choir.
Dido occupies a curious place in the repertory. Purcell is undoubtedly a major figure in English music, pretty much unrivalled in the long period between Byrd and Elgar, and clearly a composer of international standing; yet Dido is perhaps the only one of his works to have achieved universal familiarity. Just about anyone who knows any classical music at all knows Dido's lament, but the general listener who is not immersed in, say, church music or the viol consort repertoire might struggle to name even one other Purcell composition. Add to this the fact that it's the only English opera written before 1945 to hold the stage, and it can seem that the work is being asked to bear more cultural weight than befits its modest proportions. We're often told that Dido is a perfect work, ideally concise and tightly wrought, exercising an extraordinary emotional impact without using a single note more than is necessary. And yet audiences can hardly fail to be aware of problematic elements of the work's dramaturgy – its concision can feel like abruptness, and it's rare to read a review of a performance of the piece that fails to draw attention to how thinly Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate portray the pivotal figure of Aeneas. (For a baritone to be said to have "made something" – anything – rather than nothing of the role is, it seems, high praise indeed.) So it's perhaps unsurprising that directors are often minded to attempt radical reworkings of Dido which go beyond even the iconoclastic norms of Regietheater in trying to remake the work as something either less or more than a conventional opera. To take recent London productions alone: a performance at the Southbank Centre presented the piece as a puppet show (the director perhaps embracing the sense that these characters are not fully fleshed-out human beings); further south, in Peckham, Opera in Space reordered parts of the score and seasoned it liberally with jazz standards, drumming and spoken dialogue. Perhaps most radically of all, Katie Mitchell's 2009 ENO production at the Young Vic, After Dido, displaced the task of telling the story of Dido and Aeneas altogether; instead, the focus was on three contemporary narratives of loss, played out by silent actors, who seemed to be haunted, burdened and consoled in turn by the emotional pull of the music as it was performed around them.
Our Salzburg production of Dido had something in common with these reworkings of the piece. Anyone familiar with the work's musical trajectory would have been repeatedly disconcerted: by the introduction of a monologue spoken by the Sorceress (the actress Johanna Wokalek, presented here as a kind of alter ego to Dido herself) at the beginning and end, accompanied by ghostly premonitions of instrumental pieces from elsewhere in the score; by the reordering of the first two vocal numbers, which discreetly reconfigured the opera as a musical journey from one great ground bass lament ('Ah, Belinda') to another ('When I am laid in earth'); and by the interpolation of instrumental music by Purcell's contemporaries Francesco Cavalli (his Didone) and Johann Christoph Pezel. Even the most familiar and inevitable-seeming juncture in the work was disrupted. There's often an almost palpable sense of anticipation and arrival in a Dido audience when, after the penultimate chorus, a solo bass continuo instrument descends and the heroine begins her final recitative, introducing the famous lament which constitutes many people's primary reason for coming to hear the opera at all. Our Dido (Kate Lindsay) kept the audience waiting a little longer than usual for that satisfaction, repeating her lines ('Thy hand, Belinda... Thy hand, Belinda... Belinda...') in a moment of emotional tension extreme even by the standards of an evening that was full of pregnant pauses and tense silences. Visually and dramatically, this was a very sombre Dido, with dark-hued costumes by Florence von Gerkan and Hwan Kim complementing the shadowy expanse of the Felsenreitschule theatre. For me, perhaps the most interesting insight yielded by the short production process (just seven days) was the idea that Dido and Aeneas are both traumatised survivors of past conflicts. With this in mind, it becomes less problematic that Dido should be so smitten by the apparently rather uningratiating figure of Aeneas: she is attracted to him not on account of his charisma, but because she recognises in him the marks of psychological suffering which she too has endured.
All of this was masterminded by the BNC's artistic director, Thomas Hengelbrock, who assumed the roles of both musical and stage director. A memorably intense production, whose intensity was very much initiated from the pit: I don't think I've ever heard this English music played with such delicacy, such fearsome power or such defined intent as it was here by these German players. I'm due to rejoin the BNC next year to revive the production in Hamburg, Vienna and the Rheingau Festival.