There’s a bright focus and intensity to the slow opening section
of the Overture and the inner parts are telling. The tension
is also carried over into the fast section. Belinda’s opening
arioso from Yeree Suh is rather mousy, but it’s no part of her
function to upstage Dido. Later her ‘Pursue thy conquest, love’
is suitably eager. The court chorus is light, comely and youthful.
Dido’s opening aria from Solenn’ Lavanant Linke also has fresh
projection, youthfulness, even some athleticism. Her long melisma
on ‘languish’ is finely accomplished. But this is stately emotion,
more recollected in tranquillity than presently experienced.
At the time of writing (March 2011) you can hear this entire
aria through this link
to the artist’s website. Her Dido is at first more queenly than
womanly. This is partly because of the sense of sepulchral foreboding
created by Leonardo Garcia Alarcón’s sudden use here of chamber
organ in the continuo. In the ensuing recitative (tr. 6), bravely
and successfully taken with flexibility of tempo and quite slowly
at times by Alarcón, Dido’s womanly qualities emerge. This is
just in time to provide a good match for the fruity baritone
of Alejandro Meerapfel’s Aeneas which is both self-obsessed
and curiously attractive.
The orchestra’s strings begin to be doubled by oboes from ‘Fear no danger’ (tr. 7) and often thereafter to roseate effect. The chorus is more steady in tempo when there is this instrumental doubling. ‘To the hills and the vales’ is a well behaved celebration but the following Triumphing Dance is archetypically courtly, being lightly articulated and neat in rhythm. The Act 2 Prelude has a quietly sad, baleful cast but there’s nothing quiet about Fabián Schofrin’s Sorceress who is for me too hammy in articulation. His top F on ‘all’ at the end of his first arioso (tr.14 1:33) might be a werewolf howl. The use of a counter-tenor is a miscasting anyway for the Sorceress has exactly the same vocal range as Dido and is in the opera a parallel force, a Queen of Evil, so should also be sung by a mezzo. The First and Second Witches’ duets, over-nasal, are like baying hyenas if tempered by occasional glimpses of fine singing such as the First Witch’s sustained high F sharp on ‘cry’ (tr. 18 0:34). The pity of it is Alarcón’s technique in slowing down and speeding up tempo within these duets is effective in its menace but this is marred by the megaphone-like distortion of the voice production. The witches’ cackling ‘ha-has’ are more acceptable but the echo part of the Echo Chorus, placed at the extreme edges of the stereo spectrum, is curiously free from nasality. The the sound from the ‘deep vaulted cell’ could arguably be more sinister and distorted. This echo is, however, correctly maintained in the following Echo Dance.
In Act 2 Scene 2 the holiday atmosphere of Belinda’s ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’ is very engaging. However, the Second Woman’s ‘Oft she visits this lov’d mountain’ is taken at too fast a tempo to get words and story across; this dramatic approach actually decreases the dramatic impact. Dido revels in her description of thunder as much as Aeneas does in his prowess as a hunter. On the other hand Belinda and the court’s hastening to town is a touch polite. The Spirit of the Sorceress manages, unlike most counter-tenors in this role, not to sound at all eerie. Aeneas’s response, on the other hand, is given fine emotive colour by Meerapfel, bringing lyricism and pathos to his arioso.
Act 3 Scene 1’s sailors, a solo song, chorus and dance, are trimly done. The reappearance of the Sorceress and witches, on the other hand, offers further animal imitations from the latter at the cries of ‘Elissa’s ruin’d’ (tr. 31 from 0:22) and ugly distortion of voice from the former at ‘Our next motion must be’. You might find this a lively contrast and diversion but I’d suggest it makes for uncomfortable repeated listening. As if in compensation, though not consistency, the witches’ chorus ‘Destruction’s our delight’ is oddly chaste. The witches’ dance is more effectively grisly. Theeffcet is heightened by the spotlighting of the second violins’ chromatic slide towards the end of the opening phrase (tr. 34 0:09) and by its dysfunctional shifts of tempo.
The final scene opens with two memorably sad and lovely soft top Gs from Linke’s Dido on ‘heav’n’ (tr. 35 0:24, 0:37) followed by a harder-edged, imperial and forced third G (0:46), a pattern repeated in her lament’s series of ‘Remember me’ though with this time the very final one more softly shaded. This adds to the poignancy. The duet with Aeneas has by turns a fiery determination and a sorrowful recall of past happiness. As with much of the recitative Alarcón dares to take it slowly and thus effectively conveys the anguish of both parties. The chorus ‘Great minds against themselves conspire’ begins in the manner of epic statement only to fall away into desolation. The opera’s closing funeral rite chorus, ‘With drooping wings ye Cupids come’, has a seemly dignity and decorum if its body of sound, with oboes doubling strings again, is a touch too full to convey tenderness.
Here, then, is a Dido and Aeneas that is good in parts. In the final reckoning it is not as emotionally convincing as the account directed by Steven Devine and Elizabeth Kenny which in Sarah Connolly’s Dido and Gerald Finley’s Aeneas offers the finest realizations of the principals I have heard in recent years (Chandos CHAN 0757, review). That said, two of Alarcón’s practices, quite different to those of Devine and Kenny, I rather like. Firstly Alarcón is pretty minimalist and unfussy about ornamentation which I find quite refreshing; Kenny and Devine overplay it. Secondly Alarcón chooses to present only Purcell’s extant music for the opera; Kenny and Devine add extra pieces as indicated by the libretto and sometimes at whim. On the other hand Alarcón’s total timing of 52:55 looks rather short measure in comparison with the Chandos 69:49. I think then it’s fair to suggest Alarcón has missed the opportunity to offer us as a bonus a little more from Purcell’s ample portfolio of incidental music.