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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas (c.1680s?)
Opera in three acts, libretto by Nahum Tate
Dido - Catherine Bott (soprano)
Belinda - Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Aeneas - John Mark Ainsley  (tenor)
Sorceress - David Thomas (bass)
First Witch - Elisabeth Priday  (soprano)
Second Witch - Sara Stowe  (soprano)
Second Woman - Julianne Baird (soprano) 
First Sailor - Daniel Lochmann   (tenor)
Spirit - Michael Chance  (counter-tenor)
The Academy of Ancient Music Chorus and Orchestra/Christopher Hogwood
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, September 1992
DECCA CLASSIC OPERA 475 7195 [52:35]
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The pleasure of poetry is in the reading of it or, when set to music, in the singing of it. Nahum Tate’s excellent libretto, formed mainly of rhyming couplets, contains expressive touches within such a compact frame as to provide a composer with dramatic sensibilities ample matter to assist the drawing an inspired work from his pen. With that statement must go acknowledgement that Purcell was such a man – dramatic in mind, inspired in composition – and also a man aware of his continental precursors and contemporaries in terms of musical style, yet he remained resolutely English. His music thrived then and still speaks to us now because of this mix of ingredients. Dido and Aeneas remains for many the pinnacle of English operatic achievement – Benjamin Britten, no less, often acknowledged it thus.

This present recording is not without its element of controversy, even among recent historically-informed performances, but more of that later.

Christopher Hogwood paces the work sensitively throughout, favouring tempi on the sprightly side, yet the work never appears overly rushed. Indeed it benefits from internal variations of pacing that enable ‘the pastoral, the heroic, the comic-grotesque and ultimately the tragic [to be] encompassed in a brief hour’, as Richard Luckett puts it in his excellently comprehensive introductory notes. The AAM’s playing is remarkable for its overall refinement and attention to detail, showing just how much of one mind they are with Hogwood with regard to performance realisation. Throughout there is a sense of airiness that pervades the playing – all to the good in allowing one to enjoy the playful spirit at work in Purcell’s musical conception.

Such aspects are carried through into the singing. As befits a work possibly written for and definitely performed (in 1684) at Josiah Priest’s Chelsea School for Girls, the female parts dominate the work. Catherine Bott and Emma Kirkby contrast with each other in terms of tone – Bott being slightly ‘creamier’ than Kirkby, who brings her famed brilliance to proceedings. The justly final famous lament is suffused by Bott with meaning missed by other heavier-voiced exponents of the role. In doing so she makes one realise just how much Purcell achieves by hinting at the consequences of the foregone plot.

The male roles however should not be overlooked. John Mark Ainsley takes the small, though crucial, role of Aeneas ably in his stride and with understanding both of style and dramatic importance. And so to the main controversy of this set – the assignment of the Sorceress’s part to a bass, David Thomas. In his note on performance of the work Hogwood justifies the move by citing historical precedents in the casting of stage witches. He clearly believes that in Thomas he has a bass that realises the high tessitura of the role with confidence. One may carry modern preconceptions about the casting of such roles – other recordings (conducted by Haim, Leppard, etc.) still assign it to a mezzo – but listening in comparison reveals that Hogwood’s bold decision does pay off. I would strongly urge any doubters to give this a fair hearing. Thomas’s performance is a delight. It brings added atmosphere at a crucial stage in proceedings. His entry immediately catches the ear, making one sit up and take note.

Atmosphere, I might add, is further heightened by the spacious and imposing use of thunder and lightning effects at Sweden’s Drottningholm Court Theatre – the dubbing is expertly handled, as is the capture of the malevolent asides by the witches’ chorus. Smaller roles are well taken. The diction of all - including chamber sized chorus - is beautifully clear, rendering the enclosed libretto redundant, although it will be useful if one is getting to know the work.

A very welcome return for this hugely enjoyable recording that makes one listen with fresh ears to Purcell’s music and admire it anew. What a glorious composer Purcell is, and this is one recording that I would not want to be without.

Evan Dickerson



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