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can discard the catalogue when it gets out of date … or earlier.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.
and Act 1
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.