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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas - opera in three acts (1689)
Dido: Lynne Dawson (soprano)
Belinda: Rosemary Joshua (soprano)
Aeneas: Gerald Finley  (baritone)
Second Woman: Maria Cristina Kiehr (soprano)
Sorceress: Susan Bickley (soprano)
First Witch: Dominique Visse (counter-tenor)
Second Witch: Stephen Wallace (counter-tenor)
Spirit: Robin Blaze (counter-tenor)
First Sailor: John Bowen (tenor)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/René Jacobs
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, October 1998. DDD
HARMONIA MUNDI HMX 2991683 [59:33]


After four years at full price this 1998 recording is now reissued at budget price but the booklet still includes the full libretto. I checked the sound with the original (HMC 901683) and, as you’d expect, there’s no difference. This time the CD is presented in a slipcase with the 2006 Harmonia Mundi catalogue (163 pages) but as it’s still in a standard jewel case you can discard the catalogue when it gets out of date … or earlier.  But that would be a pity, as you wouldn’t notice that the same team recorded Blow’s Venus and Adonis - at the same sessions. As Blow’s work was clearly the model for Purcell’s - as stated the back cover of this Purcell CD - Jacobs’ recording starts with a unique and authentic frame of reference. A legitimate opportunity for marketing this connection more directly is wasted.
 
Overture and Act 1
The Overture is excellently done. A stylish, measured introduction, courtly and lithe, thoughtful but not inevitably tragic, followed by a quick section which is impetuous, eager, light and youthful. A standard French overture, but also both elements of Dido’s character vividly revealed before we hear her. The impetuous side is then emphasised in Belinda’s air and following chorus (tr. 2) and even continues in the quite fast tempo for Dido’s opening aria (tr. 3). But there’s also a certain regal style in Lynne Dawson’s sultry projection, poignantly softening at ‘Peace and I are strangers grown’. The greatest tenderness, however, comes in the orchestral postlude.
 
Although Dido stands out passionately in them, the following recitatives (trs. 4, 6) are weakened by the allocation of the Second Woman’s lines - as assigned in the 1689 printed libretto - to Belinda in addition to her own. This breaks the symmetry of three female voices at court in parallel with three female voices later at the witches’ cave. It also unduly strengthens Belinda’s role, makes the Second Woman’s first appearance in a duet with Belinda puzzling and, odder still, her first solo is the most extended aria in Act 2 (tr. 23). On a more positive note, Gerald Finley’s Aeneas is attractive. His voice is firm, virile and youthful. He may be no more than living in the moment, but you readily accept him.
 
The choruses are pleasingly varied, so you feel this court is never dull. For ‘Fear no danger to ensue’ (tr. 7) there’s guitars’ backing for the first time and the strings’ doubling of the top three chorus parts is here taken by recorders to jollier effect. On the other hand the more reflective next chorus, ‘Cupid only throws the dart’ (tr. 9) is appropriately more luxuriantly sedate. The final chorus of Act 1, ‘To the hills and the vales’ (tr. 12) both swings crisply and yet is also a formal celebration. The following Triumphing Dance is lighter but still swinging, with notably clear inner parts.
 
Act 2
This begins arrestingly with a thunder clap (tr. 14). An inauthentic, cheap effect, I’m afraid. The point of the first scene is the witches conjure a storm, so the thunder comes at the end (of tr. 20) where here there’s just a puny ripple. The impact in music alone of the Prelude, in the change of key from C major to F minor, is also thereby weakened, though the quavers are stabbingly accented.
           
I like the subtlety of Susan Bickley’s Sorceress. There’s just a slight sinister edge to the voice. Only when she has a trill on ‘Italian ground’ in her later recitative (tr. 16) does she briefly show a cackle, so the effect is like the lifting and returning of a decorous mask. The witches, on the other hand, feature an undisguised cackle from the start, but with a nice contrast between the relished malevolence in the slow treatment of the chorus ‘Harm’s our delight’ (tr. 15) and the fast laughing choruses that follow.
 
This is the only recording where counter-tenors take the roles of First and Second Witch. This is unlikely to have happened at the only known performance in Purcell’s lifetime, at Josias Priest’s girls’ school, where the spotlight was naturally on female performers. It also means the Sorceress and the First and Second Witch are no longer vocally a mirror image of Dido, Belinda and the Second Woman; but the latter’s role has already been truncated, as already mentioned. In terms of representation only in sound, counter-tenors make for a lively, oddball sort of contrast, especially Dominique Visse’s totally uninhibited hamming in the duet ‘But ere we this perform’ (tr. 18). Further contrast comes when the First and Second Witch exchange parts for the repeats of both strains of this duet. The trouble is, after these high jinks, the witches’ Echo Chorus and Dance seem a bit staid.
 
The second scene starts with a ritornello of luxuriant ease (tr. 21), the recorders’ doubling supplying the cream. ‘Thanks to these lovesome vales’ (tr. 22) is imaginatively varied from the norm, which is a solo by Belinda with repeats followed by a chorus repeat with repeats. Here the chorus joins Belinda’s repeats - which she still leads - and the following chorus is purely instrumental. It’s the groundbass too that generates the tension in the Second Woman’s aria ‘Oft she visits this lov’d mountain’ (tr. 23).
           
Counter-tenor number 3, Robin Blaze, appears as the Sorceress’s Spirit, providing with the previously unused backing of chamber organ suitably spooky sailing orders for Aeneas. However, in terms of the 1689 performance, he’s no more authentic than the two male witches. The tradition of casting a counter-tenor in this role only goes back to the 1967 Mackerras recording (on DG). Anyway Gerald Finley makes a cogent response to reveal the human side of Aeneas.
 
Within the booklet notes René Jacobs discusses the ‘missing music’ at this point. His solution is to set the libretto’s  witches’ chorus ‘Then since our charms have sped’ to ‘About him go, so, so, so’ from the Scene of the Drunken Poet in Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen (1692) (tr. 27). Then he uses that work’s Third Act Tune Hornpipe as the Dance which concludes this act (tr. 28). Personally I find these rather genteel and upbeat for the vicious and spiteful antics of the witches.
 
Act 3
To the Prelude Jacobs brings an ironically carefree, lilting holiday atmosphere. Decked out with recorders and guitars his Sailors’ Dance gets your feet tapping. Then the briefest of pauses (tr.31) provides a momentous entry for the Sorceress and naked malice from the chortling First and Second Witches, Dominique Visse really upstaging his boss with hyena-like trills. Consistent with the practice in Act 2, there’s a sadistic deliberation about the witches’ chorus ‘Destruction’s our delight’ (tr. 33). Here there’s also a sudden increase of tempo at ‘And Carthage flames tomorrow’, a stylish manipulation and menacing unpredictability repeated equally effectively in the following Witches’ Dance.
 
The final scene shows Lynne Dawson’s Dido both imperious and desolate in her recitative, at once noble and melting at ‘But Death, alas, I cannot shun’ (tr. 35 3:16). She begins the famous aria ‘When I am laid in earth’ (tr. 38) with stark simplicity and sensitively shades the whole, commanding for the first ‘remember me’ then treating its repeat as a softening plea. Incidentally, at ‘ah forget my fate’ the variation between the melisma on ‘forget’ first time and ‘ah’ second time follows the earliest surviving manuscripts. Most, if not all, other recordings have the melisma on ‘ah’ both times.
 
Jacobs finds just the right tempo and weight of emphasis for the closing chorus, thereby creating in sound a graphic picture of drooping wings and roses being scattered on Dido’s tomb. This is partly because he uses a semi-chorus until the words ‘Keep here, your watch’ (tr.39 1:37). Then he uses full chorus for that final sentence and for the repeat of this chorus until he returns to semi-chorus for the second appearance of ‘Keep here, your watch’ (4:08). Arguably over-elaborate, this is typical of the care and sophistication with which Jacobs approaches the whole opera.
 
An alternative choice
Jacobs’ performance outclasses all the others at budget price in terms of the overall quality of the singing and instrumental contribution. But the 1961 Anthony Lewis performance (Decca 4663872) may be considered an alternative, largely owing to the impact and conviction of Janet Baker’s unsurpassed Dido. Her opening aria is more emotive and shows richer tone than Lynne Dawson’s and finds an almost tangible pathos at ‘Peace and I are strangers grown’. Baker’s final scene with Aeneas is supercharged, heroic passion where Dawson is majestically distant. Baker’s ‘But Death, alas’ has rich colouration and ‘When I am laid in earth’ an epic, elegiac measure, though less dynamic contrast than Dawson.
 
Lewis’s modern orchestra articulates neatly enough, with clear inner parts. The imaginative yet selective continuo realization by Thurston Dart is a bonus. In comparison with Jacobs, however, the chorus seems rather square and rustic, though ‘Cupid only throws the dart’ is more playful and madrigalian. Raimund Herincx’s Aeneas is by and large rather bloatedly macho, yet his outburst at realizing he must leave Dido is movingly heartfelt. The Second Woman gets her fuller part which balances better the presentation of the court in relation to that of the witches. Cackling witches are common to both recordings but Lewis’s are less quixotic.
 
To conclude, both Jacobs’ chorus and orchestra are excellent. Overall his performance offers the finest value today in state-of-the-art singing and playing, but there is one even more outstanding Dido.
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 

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