What about Aeneas? He has been left out the title for English National Opera’s new Purcell production, its first collaboration with Unicorn theatre, a venue for young audiences. He shouldn’t be: while this new production by Purni Morell, the Unicorn’s outgoing artistic director, aims at reimagining Dido and Aeneas, it is just another staging Purcell’s familiar opera, in the open yet intimate space the Unicorn and in colourful modern dress, designed by Khadija Raza. But the storytelling will flummox adults as much as the teenage audience Morell aims to reach.
Morell turns Belinda from being Dido’s maid and confidante, as in the original 1689 scenario, into her daughter. Dido herself is not the Queen Carthage but a nicely turned out, self-absorbed middle-aged woman who’s never more than three feet away from a bottle sauvignon blanc. The idea is that we witness Dido’s disintegration and suicide through a daughter’s eyes.
Yet trying to make Belinda into more a focal character in this way has the effect pushing her further away from the fulcrum the story. The usual fussing maid at Dido’s right hand is replaced by a girl calmly observing her, ten from across the playing area. Purcell provides fewer moments close interaction between the two than Morell would need to make her concept work. And there is no room for a self-respecting teenager at the picnic Morell stages instead the hunting scene, with fleeting playfulness: Njabulo Madlala’s Aeneas gets a laugh as he brandishes a chipolata on his fork while boasting his prowess with a spear, in a rare time the staging and words work together.
Who, though, are any these people? Dido as sad Bridget Jones is a character diminished, however commandingly Rachael Lloyd sings her. Belinda is Eyra Norman, a first-year undergraduate whose sweet soprano tone and natural presence promise much, but her diction is no clearer than anyone else’s. At least Valentina Peleggi’s conducting and the buoyant, astringent playing the seven-player ENO ensemble keeps musical values high, but what these people are signing about, and why, is anyone’s guess.
• At Unicorn theatre, London, until 2 June.