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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline


Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas, Z626 - opera in three acts (1689) [69:49]
Dido: Sarah Connolly (mezzo)
Belinda: Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Aeneas: Gerald Finley  (baritone)
Second Woman: Sarah Tynan (soprano)
Sorceress: Patricia Bardon (mezzo)
First Witch: Carys Lane (soprano)
Second Witch: Rebecca Outram (soprano)
Spirit: William Purefoy (counter-tenor)
First Sailor: John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Choir of the Enlightenment, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Steven Devine (harpsichord); Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo/guitar)
rec. St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, 23-25 June 2008. DDD.
Booklet includes libretto in English, French and German.


Experience Classicsonline

The challenge for any opera recording in sound alone is to convey the drama without at times becoming hammy on the one hand or simply purely distilled, abstract melody on the other.

This Dido and Aeneas vividly balances the expressiveness of both drama and melody. The opening slow episode of the Overture shines sadly and thoughtfully, like Dido’s state of mind, yet its quick section is both nervous and full of life, suggesting the potential of a positive outcome. As Belinda, Lucy Crowe’s ‘Shake the cloud from off your brow’ (tr. 2) conveys with its ornamentation all the richness of the court but also in her singing solicitude for her sister Dido. The court chorus ‘Banish sorrow, banish care’ gives forthright, pacy advice. As throughout this production, they project freshly, their manner is credible and takes the action forward.

Dido enters with her aria ‘Ah! Belinda, I am prest with torment’ (tr. 3). Sarah Connolly is the third Chandos Dido. The first, featuring the Taverner Choir and Players/Andrew Parrott (CHAN 8306) was recorded in 1981 with Emma Kirkby as Dido, in young, bright voice, all pearly clarity and ingenuousness, characterized as a girl somewhat out of her depth. The second recording with Collegium Musicum 90/Richard Hickox (CHAN0586), made in 1995, finds Maria Ewing as Dido with a more dramatic, darkly coloured approach, a responsible queen who is also in pain because of her longing for Aeneas. Her more measured delivery, the aria timing at 3:50 in comparison with Kirkby’s 3:19 and Connolly’s 3:14, suggests a degree of indulgence in the mood. For further comments on Ewing’s account, see my review of its release on DVD (Warner NVC Arts 50 51442 882223).

In the CD now under review Sarah Connolly conveys both majesty and fragility, beginning with a natural intimacy and yet still a sense of reserve, unveiled a little by her increased ornamentation on the repeat of the first phrase. In other words, ornamentation is an intrinsic part of the expression, not just something applied. Connolly’s fine breath control in the long melisma on ‘languish’ creates a vivid picture and a very slight slowing at ‘Peace and I are strangers grown’ seals the sense of sorrow, held in the following orchestral ritornello. But at that point (3:53) comes some extra music which derives from Connolly’s experience of earlier productions, the Air from Bonduca, Z574/4 as inserted by Attilio Cremonesi in Sasha Waltz’s choreographic opera version of Dido. This production, though not a performance in which Connolly took part, is available on DVD (Arthaus Musik 101311, review). There it provides a tender, moving extended look at Dido’s state of mind, its inner conflict depicted by two dancers. But here, in sound alone, for me its extra 2:47 of melancholic reflection disturbs that equipoise established from the Overture between sadness and prospective joy. And unlike most of the later additions on this CD there’s no authority for this one in the printed libretto.

What is well balanced in this performance is the recitative by being flexible in tempo to match the variations of mood: becoming slower and more reflective at Belinda’s ‘the Trojan guest/Into your tender thoughts has prest’ (tr. 4) and more lively and excited for Dido’s ‘Whence could so much virtue spring?’ (tr. 5). Her passage beginning ‘Mine with storms of care opprest’ moves from vigour through tender empathy to anguish with a comparable range of expressiveness to that of Kirsten Flagstad in her 1952 recording (EMI 5096902, review) though Connolly doesn’t sound quite as spontaneous. Gerald Finley’s Aeneas is manly but you also feel he’s graced by fame, quietly, inherently, not vauntingly heroic and in this more likable than the suave David Thomas in 1981 and novice approach of Karl Daymond in 1995.

There’s more ‘extra’ music, an orchestral repeat of ‘Fear no danger to ensue’ (tr. 5), not actually necessary because the chorus already repeats what starts as Belinda and the Second Woman’s duet but a rousing tune. The Gittars Chacony (tr. 9) added next, based on a chaconne by Francesco Corbetta, court guitarist to Charles II in the 1670s, is for me more of a liability. Indicated in the printed libretto but not later sources it halts the momentum between Belinda’s eager ‘Pursue thy conquest, Love’ (tr. 8), magnificently stoked by Lucy Crowe’s lively ornamentation and crowned by changing the head of the final ‘Pursue’ refrain from D to top G, and the chorus ‘To the hills and the vales’ (tr. 10) whose sudden, eager attack appears to interrupt it. Act 1 finishes with genuine Purcell, a light-heartedly swinging orchestral Triumphing Dance (tr.11), the inner parts well balanced but the edge taken from the rejoicing by thunder (1:04) that rather pre-empts the witches conjuring the storm later (tr. 16).

Nevertheless in Act 2 Scene 1 Patricia Bardon’s Sorceress is a formidable, larger than life presence, a kind of rival Queen to Dido as intended, aided by her embellishment of the vocal line, especially at ‘Deprived of fame’ (tr. 13 0:23) where she goes down an octave to middle C and then sketches an ascent to the written C. The choruses of witches are perhaps a little too polished but scarily proficient. The witches’ duet, ‘But ere we this perform’ (tr. 14) has a spiteful precision about it. In the echo chorus (tr. 15) the echo effect is cleanly achieved by having the echo group distanced but not distorted. However, to keep the listener in suspense, on two occasions (0:12, 0:54) there’s a momentary black hole of a pause before the ‘echo’. The same techniques are appropriately applied to the orchestra in the Echo Dance of Furies (tr. 16) with the black hole at 0:48. Then at 0:55 it seems as if the strings are beginning to play some Peter Maxwell Davies. Though not flagged in the booklet, this is to convey what the early manuscript sources term ‘Horrid music’ and thunder is here in its proper place.

A pleasingly relaxed Ritornelle (tr. 17) opening Act 2 Scene 2 makes a rare period of repose. Belinda’s ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’ (tr. 18) comes munificently ornamented which allows the choral repeat to be more sparing and direct, though thereafter elaborated a little in its own repeat. Then another interpolation, a Guitars Passacaille (tr. 19), a rather melancholy improvisation on a passacaille by Louis XIV’s guitarist Robert de Visée. I don’t begrudge this 3:05 as it provides a little more regal repose before the contrast of the Second Woman’s more dramatic ground bass foundation piece, ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’ (tr. 20). Belinda’s ‘Haste, haste to town’ and its choral repeat (tr. 21) are despatched with crisp and light efficiency which makes the Spirit’s message to Aeneas (tr. 22), delivered in ethereal countertenor tone by William Purefoy, more of a contrast. Aeneas’ response in his only arioso, that he will leave Dido, is superbly sung by Finley, finely blending resolution and despair and with a moving climax. The lost chorus ‘Then since our charms have sped’ (tr. 23) featured here has been composed by Bruce Wood, an effective piece, complementing the other witches’ choruses in its industrious nature and boosting it with a lively internal instrumental passage. I wish he had composed the Groves’ Dance too because the Magicians’ Dance from Circe, Z575/5 slotted in here is a bit prim for “A dance that shall make the spheres to wonder”.

The beginning of Act 3 Scene 1 is all sprightly and salty whether instrumental Prelude, the sailor’s song freshly delivered by John Mark Ainsley, or chorus. The First and Second Witches triumphantly elongate their articulation in turn of the phrase ‘Elissa’s ruin’d’ amid their skittering ‘ho-ho’s. They and the witches’ choruses are effectively grisly without being hammy. The libretto has no indication of any music between Scene 1 and 2 but Steven Devine plays the Almand from Purcell’s Second Suite for harpsichord, Z661/2 (tr. 28). This is a fine, sombre piece and gives us some breathing space as we travel from the quayside to Dido’s Palace, from bright exterior to gloomy interior, from B flat major to G minor, from joyous conviviality to sorrowing solitude. But 4 minutes’ breathing space is perhaps overdoing it. Cutting the repeats would for me have provided a sufficient 2 minutes. Where there is a fine sense of space is in the confrontational final duet between a fiery Dido here and an at first contrite Aeneas who then draws in and takes on board her passion but is rejected. Dido then realizes her death is imminent and Connolly suddenly and graphically becomes soft, sorrowful and melting. The chorus ‘Great minds against themselves conspire’ (tr.29) is here both creamily reflective and the beginning of the funeral rites. Connolly’s recitative ‘Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me’ (tr. 30) has an epic grandeur, poise and poignancy, her Lament simplicity and nobility, elaborated in the repeat of the opening section but with sensitivity and the majesty of sheer artistry. The repeat of the second section is also softer at first but the final ‘Remember me’ rings out more in protest before the statement tails off as if in despair and the closing ritornello is given a funereal drag. This account of recitative and Lament is more spacious than its Chandos predecessors, timing at 5:05 in comparison with Ewing’s 4:55 and Kirkby’s 4:07, but Connolly shows both something of the pathos of Kirkby’s pure transparency and fragility of Ewing’s emotive anguish. The final chorus is delivered at first with respectful probity, its repeat is a touch more freely expressive.

The St Silas acoustic is very airy. In sum this is an impressive performance of all round excellence, but the added music is controversial.

Michael Greenhalgh


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