Theatre review: Dido and Aeneas

Words by Melissa Blease
Ustinov Studio until 5 November

Based on Book IV of ancient Roman poet Virgil’s heroic saga The Aeneid, English baroque composer Henry Purcell’s late 17th century opera Dido and Aeneas recounts the tragic tale of Dido, the widowed Queen of Carthage, who falls in love with Trojan prince Aeneas while offering him safe harbour on his journey home. But a sorceress who hates Dido puts a spanner in the romantic works, creating a storm and sending one of her servants to urge Aeneas to return back to base immediately; oh dear, that doesn’t bode well for poor Dido. Meanwhile, many centuries later, in Bath…

Ustinov Artistic Director Deborah Warner and Director of Music Richard Hetherington introduce opera to the intimate environment of the Ustinov Studio for the very first time,  offering us a unique opportunity to experience epic operatics in an up-close-and-personal environment. Ambitious? Visionary? Radical, progressive, audacious? In true Warner style, this bold initiative is all those things, for sure. But despite the possible risks the venture carries with it, the gamble completely pays off: Warner/Hetherington’s Dido and Aeneas is one of the most remarkable live theatre experiences to have landed on our doorstep for a very long time.

Designer Hyemi Shin has transformed the Ustinov into a whitewashed courtyard, the sharp, subtly dramatic angles of staircases, doors and archways providing stark viewing platforms/galleries for the eight-strong cast and musicians (Musical Director Michael Papadopoulos’ harpsichord, alongside a cellist, two violinists and a violist) who all remain onstage at all times, either participating in, witnessing or generally aiding and abetting the non-stop drama. Props – a knife, a basin, candles – may suggest recent rituals, or rituals in progress, or rituals to come… or do they? Virgil majored in allegory-laden fables, and metaphors are pushed to the fore here.

Above: Ben Knight and Hugo Herman-Wilson as Bass Chorus and Richard Pinkstone as Sailor in Dido and Aeneas | Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

From the opening scene (a wide-eyed, bloodstained Dido, lost in some kind of half-life netherworld, writhing on an altar-table against an aural backdrop of Sylvia Plath’s eerily resonant Mad Girl’s Love Song) to the final, devastating silence, prepare to meet’n’greet love, grief, beauty, insanity, betrayal, vile behaviour, tragedy and regret all wrapped up in one neat, beautifully-packaged melodrama that sprawls our emotions all over the place in just under an hour. 

As headstrong but vulnerable Dido, soprano Madison Nonoa proves her award-winning credentials with pure power and compelling clarity, while Ella Taylor’s ‘supporting role’ as second witch Belinda can only be described as magnificent – a supreme soprano in action indeed. Elsewhere, mezzo-soprano Georgia Mae Bishop puts the sass into her Sorceress and Richard Pinkstone, Hugo Herman-Wilson and Ben Knight’s drunken sailor scene offers uproariously lighthearted contrast to erstwhile sepulchral circumstances. 

Complex yet uncomplicated, melodramatic but totally unpretentious and flamboyant in an understated way, Warner, Hetherington and director Isabelle Kettle have given us the full DNA behind the tale of D&A.

Tickets available from

Featured image: The Company in Dido and Aeneas | Photo credit: Tristram Kenton