I am not absolutely sure about but believe that this recording was first issued as a cover-mount disc with BBC Music Magazine and was later available on Sony. I didn’t hear either of those issues but when coming to it now with fresh ears I feel it has aged with beauty, like a good claret. Beauty in this case doesn’t necessarily imply that the singing is always beyond reproach - there are some rough edges. A twenty-year-old claret is not always smooth on the palate either, but it has character – and that is what Parrott’s brew has aplenty. Tempos are not particularly brisk but the playing is throughout fresh and vivid – and vivid has little to do with tempo. Vivid is a matter of character and you can be a vivid character even though you move at a moderate speed. The dance music is charming with rhythmic élan and there is good choral singing – with character. One gets a sense of the theatre from the outset and if this work is to appeal to modern audiences there has to be some theatricality. Here it is not just ‘some’ – you feel drawn into the play whether you like it or not. This is no museum piece – it belongs to our time. Sound effects are used with some discretion: the second scene of act II, The Grove,
opens with beautiful bird-song – very atmospheric. The first scene of the same act, The Cave
, also has some less than frightening effects to accompany the entrance of the Sorceress. The sound-effects department makes amends at the end of the scene with some truly horrifying noises.
So much for the setting. The solo singing is another matter, but not necessarily in a negative sense. It is true that neither Dido nor Belinda seem ideally clear in intonation – and they are so similar in timbre that it is hard to tell who is who without the libretto. They each also have a way of attacking the notes slightly from below and then sliding up to the note – and often the other way around as well. This isn’t exactly a portamento
— the effect is rather a feeling of uncertainty of pitch. This is however more than compensated for by commitment and the expressivity. Both Emily Van Evera and Janet Lax are true actors. Without actually seeing them, their vocal acting conveys
a feeling of physical presence, of facial expression, of gesture. The same goes for former Swingles Singer Ben Parry’s strong Aeneas and Haden Andrews’ personable Sorceress. In fact the whole ensemble, down to Douglas Wootton’s down-to-earth entertaining Sailor and the charming enchantresses, is superb. This somewhat unorthodox approach blows life into the work and transports it to the present time. I can imagine – and have heard – more purely beautiful singing in Dido and Aeneas
but this is the real thing: what Purcell expected to hear in the 1680s when the work was premiered.
A couple of musicological comments: in the printed libretto from 1689 there are text and stage directions for a scene of sung and danced rejoicing for the Witches at the end of act II, after Aeneas’s solo. The music for that scene has not survived and on this recording the gap has been filled with a hornpipe by Purcell from The Married Beau
. After the opera proper Parrott has also inserted the Pavan in G minor z752, which works eminently well as a postlude.
There is no shortage of recordings of this little masterpiece and all kinds of voices have sung the title role, from dramatic Wagnerians like Kirsten Flagstad and Jessye Norman to early music experts like Emma Kirkby – the latter by the way also with Andrew Parrott in an early 1980s recording on Chandos. So there is a recording for every taste. I have heard only a few of them and a favourite has long been the Raymond Leppard – Jessye Norman big-boned constellation (Philips). This is as far from the historically informed camp as I can imagine but vocally it is monumental and I will continue to return to it for that reason. The present recording is at the other end of the scale. When I want to hear Dido and Aeneas
first and foremost as theatre – and possibly close to what Purcell wanted – Parrott, Van Evera and the rest of this cast are hard to beat.