Watching Keith Warner's production of The Ring on television the other weekend, I found myself wondering what Wagner would have made of all the directorial additions, the visual anachronisms and the character-enlivening jokes. My guess is he would have loved it. Watching Sasha Waltz's production of Dido and Aeneas at Sadler's Wells, the same question presented itself. To what extent would Henry Purcell - once he'd got over the culture shock - have endorsed this spectacular, hardware-heavy treatment of an item he penned for an English girls' school in 1689? With its swimming pool and bungee ropes and naked bodies rolling about, would he even have recognised the story? I barely did.
Waltz, at 44, is the toast of German theatre-art. State-funded to the gills, she was given carte blanche by Berlin State Opera to do something with a repertory classic. Her first stab at a historical work in a career built on experimental dance, this Dido was bound to be unorthodox, with more than a nod towards the abstractionist style pioneered by Pina Bausch, with whom she is often compared. Bausch herself produced a memorable treatment of "Dido's Lament" in an early work, Cafe Muller, which may be what first drew Waltz to Purcell. Whatever her inspiration, it clearly had nothing to do with loving and understanding baroque opera. Rather than illuminate this gem of a score, a thing of sharp-cut, gleaming clarity, Waltz has buried it in excess packaging: too many people on stage, too many costume changes, too many visual ideas times 10.
You can't deny that some of these ideas are very arresting. During the overture and first chorus, dancers plop, fully dressed, into a long glass tank and squirm about like happy seals, weaving above, below and round each other in dreamy slow motion. On the deck above, a woman pours a cup of tea, then dribbles the remainder into the mouths of the swimmers, who pop to the surface like perch seeking crumbs. The water-level drops, the swimmers exit one by one, and strip to the buff to towel dry, a diversion in itself. But what has this to do with the fated love affair of the Queen of Carthage and her noble warrior? I racked my memory for water references in the first chorus and drew a blank. "When I am laid in earth" this was not.
I resent my mental energy being squandered in this way, looking for …