Dido and Aeneas / The Emperor of Atlantis 

IOpera-double-bill-Dido-and-Aeneas-The-Emperor-of-Atlantis Two short operatic chamber works written more than two centuries apart with contrasting musical languages couldn’t better have been brought together in a new double bill.

At Friday evening’s opening night, Melbourne-based IOpera’s inspired and unexpected marriage of English Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (c. 1683) and Silesian-born, 20th century Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis (1943) proved to be both a stimulating and entertaining experience.

Featuring an array of cast talent directed by Gert Reifarth and a superlative little orchestra under the command of Peter Tregear – both of whom co-foundered IOpera in 2007 – energy and expression abounded in this bristling, low-budget production.

A musically studded gem characterised by variable moods of sensuousness and melancholy and sparks of effervescent amusements, Dido and Aeneas tells the story of Dido, Queen of Carthage’s love for the Trojan prince Aeneas, whose ship was wrecked while fleeing a besieged Troy.

A sorcerer and his witches, however, deceive Aeneas into leaving Carthage for Italy at the request of the gods and overcome with a sense of betrayal and grief, Dido welcomes her death.

Described as a “legend in four scenes”, The Emperor of Atlantis is a powerful and entertaining work combining panto-esque and cabaret elements with enrichments of sublime lyrical dissonance — a musical carnival of surprise and intrigue.

When Emperor Overall declares that his subjects are to arm themselves and fight until there are no survivors, he is denounced by Death for supplanting his role.

Death goes on strike and the emperor continues reign over a degenerating realm, his people protesting their suspension in limbo between life and death.

After some resistance, the emperor has little choice but to accept Death’s demands that he sacrifices his own life for the sake of peace.

“ … I’m not the plague that brings you pain; I bring relief. I’m not the one who tortures men, but he who soothes their grief. I am the comfortable warm nest to which an anguished soul at last can fly. I’m freedom’s festival the last and best. I am the final lullaby … “

Death’s final aria is a poignant and thought-provoking message that not only brings reflection on the fate of the work’s creators – both Ullmann and his librettist Peter Kien were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz in October 1944 – but puts a mirror to Dido’s own earlier impossible grief.

While the director’s note in the program informs that the created overarching narrative of the paired works is supported by intertextual, sociopolitical and musical connections, it is the uncanny resemblance of the closing arias of each opera, Dido’s Lament and The Emperor’s Farewell, that spectacularly unite the two works in a shared theme of mortality and ultimate acceptance of death itself.

Spoken narrative especially written for the performance and adapted from historic sources is cleverly utilised to bind the two. It is delivered with excellent, smirking self-confidence by Tiernan Maclaren, appearing more or less permanently on stage as a ringmaster of sorts who slots into the role of Ullmann’s Loudspeaker with handsome-voiced appeal and gusto.

A commendably cast and well-rehearsed mix of seasoned and developing artists oil and elevate the double bill impeccably. And, altogether, the ensemble makes a meltingly moving and splendidly harmonised chorus start to finish.

As Dido, plush soprano Naomi Flatman invites you into her performance and soul with poise and grace on her way to anger then ultimate grief in a thrilling final lament.

Chistopher Hillier is a formidable muscular-voiced presence, convincingly portraying a military toughened exterior as both Aeneas and Emperor Overall, deftly unifying two characters as one.

Eliza Bennetts O’Connor exudes sweet finesse as Belinda, Dido’s sister and handmaid. Robert Macfarlane leads the interfering dark forces with vividly coloured and clarion tenor as the amusingly animated Sorcerer and seamlessly doubles as a simple but endearing Harlequin who lives without love or laughter and wishes to die.

The unanticipated appearance of Eddie Muliaumaseali’i with a white shroud to cover Dido’s body smartly introduces the audience to his subsequent sturdy and engaging portrayal of Ullmann’s Death in his characteristically tempered, sonorous bass.

Victoria Lambourn marches into the spotlight with vigour, her pliant, exciting and penetrating mezzo-soprano a joy to hear as Ullmann’s mechanical, expressionless Drummer, attempting to lure beautifully paired enemies Douglas Kelly and Lisette Bolton as Soldier and Girl back to battle after they fall in love.

Esther Counsel and Cecily Woodberry give fine performances as the witches and spirits of Dido and Aeneas with Kieran Macfarlane completing the ensemble most admirably.

Everything about the music-making deserves praise. Tregear juggled the demands of both scores with great insightfulness and deeply pleasurable results, wonderfully mining complimentary attractive crispness and velvety edged phrasing in Dido and Aeneas and bringing thorough delight and intelligent know-how to The Emperor of Atlantis.

Unfussy but nicely delineated costumes and Shakira Dugan’s low-lit expressive lighting was all that was needed to add to Reifarth’s seemingly uncomplicated and well-devised direction.

IOpera continue to make a valuable contribution to Melbourne’s fringe opera scene that deserves financial and audience support. With a current life of just two performances, it would be a shame to see the death of this truly special double bill.

Dido and Aeneas / The Emperor of Atlantis 
Lithuanian Club, 44 Errol Street, North Melbourne
Performance: Friday 11 November 2022
Season: 11 & 12 November 2022
Information: www.iopera.com.au

Image: IOpera presents the double-bill, Dido and Aeneas / The Emperor of Atlantis (supplied)

Review: Paul Selar