Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas - opera in three acts, Z626 (1689) [72:00]
Sarah Connolly (soprano) - Dido; Lucy Crowe (soprano) - Belinda; Anita Watson (soprano) - Second Woman; Sara Fulgoni (mezzo) - Sorceress; Eri Nakamura (soprano) - First Witch; Pumeza Matshikiza (mezzo) - Second Witch; Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor) - Voice of Spirit; Lucas Meachem (baritone) - Aeneas; Ji-Min Park (tenor) - Sailor
Dancers of the Royal Ballet, The Royal Opera Extra Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Christopher Hogwood
Stage Director and Choreographer: Wayne McGregor
Video Director: Jonathan Haswell
rec. live, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London, 3 and 8 April 2009
NTSC 16:9 Colour All Regions. LPCM Stereo, DTS surround sound. Subtitles English, French, German, Spanish, Italian
OPUS ARTE OA1018D [72:00]

With this newcomer there are now three interpretations of Dido and Aeneas currently available on DVD in the UK. This one benefits from an experienced Dido in Sarah Connolly, having made an excellent CD for Chandos in 2008, of which more later. It also features an experienced conductor in Christopher Hogwood who recorded the work in 1992 (Decca 4757195). In this 2009 production good use is made of the opening slow section of the Overture to show Dido gazing solemnly around, scantily dressed, spare and vulnerable. Then, in the fast section, attendants dress her sumptuously, so she becomes majestic and the two characteristics of Dido, strong queen and fragile woman are immediately apparent. These are then illustrated vocally by Sarah Connolly in her opening aria ‘Ah Belinda! I am prest with torment’ (track 3). This is sung both with great authority of regal bearing and as a warm effusion of essential intimacy, with her younger sister Belinda hugging and comforting her. Video director Jonathan Haswell throughout this DVD points the individual interaction and emotion of the characters. The principals respond with fine acting as well as singing. Dido’s glaring stare at the outset vividly illustrates the cloud which Belinda’s arioso wishes to shake from her brow. Yet this is clearly a stage performance, directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor, with its own character too. There’s a sombre, bare stone palace set and a spooky black figure glimpsed at the edge of its parapet at the beginning of Dido’s ‘Ah Belinda!’ who glides across that parapet during its closing ritornello. Who is it? Perhaps the Sorceress we don’t see till Act 2.

The recitative is as well delivered here as in the Chandos CD. It too is flexible in tempo to match the variations of mood. That said, one modification to Purcell’s original for me doesn’t work. In the recitative following Dido’s aria Belinda alone converses with Dido rather than Belinda and the Second Woman. This spoils the parallel of commander plus two attendants with Act 2, where it applies to the Sorceress and First and Second Witch though, as you’ll see, McGregor has a response to that too. It also necessitates a rather clumsy first entry of the Second Woman suddenly to join Belinda in duet singing ‘Fear no danger to ensue’ (tr. 5). Lucas Meachem makes a manly and fairly mature Aeneas, if not as mature as Connolly’s Dido. His diction is also good, though his prefacing with a ‘K’ the ‘W’ of his opening word ‘When’ in Act 1 and ‘What’ in Act 3 is a bit unsettling. Lucy Crowe’s Belinda urges Dido, ‘Pursue thy conquest, Love’, in suitably bubbly fashion and the lovers caress. But, as in other recent recordings, an improvised Guitar Dance halts the momentum whereby the chorus ‘To the hills and the vales’ can propel us on to The Triumphing Dance. Admittedly the Dance is short, enough for a brief embrace before Dido rushes out, but Hogwood then takes the chorus in rather staid and formal fashion, as are their dance steps. There’s more swing in his 1992 recording through more emphasis on the first beat of the bar. The 2009 formality is McGregor’s doing as he uses the chorus physically to ‘provide architectural structure to the piece’. Then they make way for the ballet, here the Royal Ballet, clad as gymnasts in the Triumphing Dance. At the end of this dance, atmospherically but incorrectly, comes a thunder-clap as it is the Sorceress who conjures a storm at the beginning of Act 2.

With rich voice, vibrato and gazing around with gleeful spite, Sarah Fulgoni is a somewhat hammy Sorceress but undeniably a presence as she should be in direct opposition to Dido. Like the Sorceress in silvery incandescent blue, her two attendant witches are rather fetching, but McGregor suggests the two are also one with a costume covering them both which suggests they’re joined at the shoulder, forming quite a remarkable creature as the First Witch is a white soprano and the Second a black mezzo. But musically this is appropriate as it emphasises and arguably enhances the echoing manner of their duet ‘But ’ere we this perform’ (tr. 10). The real echo of the witches’ semi-chorus within the chorus ‘In our deep vaulted cell’ (tr. 11) is well distanced but not the comparable echoing instrumental passages in the Echo Dance of Furies (tr. 12). The ballet gymnasts return for this but, as in all the following dances, looking the same as before. So while they gyrate expertly enough, you feel the dance element has become somewhat abstracted from the characterization.

Act 2 Scene 2 starts with the happiest episode of the opera as Belinda sings ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’ (tr. 13) introducing an idyllic pastoral scene in which the lovers and court are at their ease. Lucy Crowe sings the whole arioso with a pleasant, free-flowing manner before the chorus repeat. In the second Woman’s aria ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’ (tr. 14), Anita Watson has to compete for our attention with a dancer on either side miming the action. This tale of destruction is seen to alarm Dido who has then to be comforted by Aeneas during the closing ritornello, making good use in stage action and on DVD of the space the music makes available. While Aeneas sings ‘Behold, upon my bending spear a monster’s head stands bleeding’ (tr. 15) we see neither spear nor head: instead he gives Dido a pendant for which McGregor has later uses. Neither do we see the Sorceress’s Spirit, an ethereal Iestyn Davies, singing ‘Stay, Prince, and hear great Jove’s command’ (tr. 16) as this is a good opportunity to feature a solo dancer. Meachem conveys Aeneas’s conflicting response of resolute princely duty and personal anguish well. And I like Hogwood’s solution to the problem of how to end this scene in the same key as its opening: not by interpolating Purcell music from other scores but simply repeating the ritornello which opened the scene, now of sad cast as the court sinks down to sleep.

It’s the drowsy sailors who have to be kicked awake at the start of Act 3 which puts more action into the Sailor’s aria ‘Come away, fellow sailors’ (tr.17). They aren’t given the action of the Sailors’ Dance (tr. 18) as it’s those ballet gymnasts again, and yet again for the Witches’ Dance (tr.20) where Hogwood relishes some bloodcurdling heavyweight continuo. In the second scene, albeit not separately marked in the booklet and DVD chapter headings, the low stone façade is neatly wheeled in to denote Dido’s palace and Connolly sings ‘Your counsel all is urg’d in vain’ (tr. 21) and the ensuing duet with Aeneas with an arresting combination of imperious passion and melting intimacy. Meachem’s Aeneas is passionate too. The stage darkens at Dido’s recitative which follows the duet, ‘But death, alas, I cannot shun’ yet while the chorus philosophises ‘Great minds against themselves conspire’ we are transfixed by the stage action. Connolly slashes her wrists with a knife which happens to be in the pendant McGregor earlier had Aeneas give her and we see the blood flow. This brings a graphic meaning to the recitative ‘Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me’, delivered by Connolly with great dignity, as Belinda sees the wrists and tries to bind them. Dido’s Lament itself (tr. 22) has a well-judged pace and poise as Connolly staggers, begins to fall and is eventually prostrate. In the closing ritornello Belinda raises her up to see if there are signs of life and try to revive her but weeps on realizing she cannot. I admire this realism: on DVD it’s up close and personal, messy, even embarrassing, but very human. You feel yourself preferring to be the chorus retiring to general principles. They return to pay their respects, ‘With drooping wings ye Cupids come’, The Royal Opera Extra Chorus sonorous and emotive, though I’d personally prefer more delicacy and tenderness as in the freer flowing, more intimate chorus in the Chandos 2008 CD. The repeat comes on instruments alone with spectral glimpses of a horse in back projection as the chorus departs.

This DVD has three extras. A synopsis which plays for 1:37 and consists of stills and a voice-over commentary where we learn the pendant Aeneas gives Dido is a token of love. A cast gallery is just stills and names without biographical detail. A substantial interview with McGregor plays for 10:11. He’s attracted by and emphasises the simplicity and minimalism of the work, its universal themes of love, loss, death, longing and honour. He recognises the dances are interludes but also connect the scenes of the opera in physically expressing the emotional content of the adjacent action. But he goes beyond this in his interest in telling the narrative itself through the gestures and movements of the characters’ bodies, so that without the words it might still be understood, moving towards the work becoming a ballet with song. This is more controversial but isn’t done as a fully-fledged choreographic opera like the version by Sasha Waltz. Instead McGregor seeks to present ‘a graphic sketch of that sound world rather than a representation of the characterization of the piece’, so those gymnast ballet dancers are intentionally at a more objective and abstract level. 

Time to sum up. This is the best of the 3 DVD Didos currently available because in Sarah Connolly it has the finest Dido. And it comes in excellent surround sound, cleanly defined yet also smooth. But the uniform, analytic, under-characterized nature ballet presentation doesn’t appeal to me. I prefer either of the other Dido DVDs (review) in this, that stage-directed by Peter Maniura (NVC Arts 50 51442 882223,) providing other visual activity, that choreographed by Sasha Waltz (Arthaus 101 311) making the whole work a dance extravaganza. And overall I find more musically satisfying, Chandos Chaconne CHAN 0757, (review), which also features Connolly, Crowe, the same orchestra and in Gerald Finley arguably the finest Aeneas ever on disc, a more formidably regal Sorceress in Patricia Bardon and a fresher chorus. 

Michael Greenhalgh