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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido & Aeneas
Josephine Veasey (mezzo) – Dido; Helen Donath (soprano) – Belinda; John Shirley Quirk (baritone) – Aeneas; Elizabeth Bainbridge (mezzo) – Sorceress; Delia Wallis (soprano) – Second Woman and First Witch; Gillian Knight (soprano) – Second Witch; Frank Patterson (tenor) – Sailor; Thomas Allen (baritone) – Spirit; John Alldis Choir – Courtiers, Witches, and Sailors
Kenneth Heath (cello); Robin McGee (double-bass); John Constable (organ and harpsichord)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Director Sir Neville Marriner)/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, London, United Kingdom in August 1970; remastered in Baarn, the Netherlands in November 2015
DDD+DSD, reviewed in surround
PENTATONE PTC5186230 SACD [58:20]

As I’d like to end this review on a happy note, a couple of gripes to begin with. Firstly, this single-disc release is in a cardboard box 50% wider than the standard CD jewel case. The disc itself is in a cardboard sleeve, and comfortably shares the box with a booklet of liner notes and libretto, and another of promotional material. Now it might be argued that including the libretto makes for a thicker booklet than would fit the standard jewel case. However, the booklet itself is over-spaciously laid out and could be reduced to half its size; the classic Anthony Lewis recording on Decca Legends, for example, fits it all into standard format. It’s not only wasteful packaging, but unnecessary linear strain on those already overburdened CD shelves!

My second gripe may seem more personal, but I believe it’s relevant. Both conductor and orchestra leader on this 1970 recording are referred to by titles that were not held at the time. Neither was knighted until at least 10 years later.  It's misleading, I suggest, to refer to artists by title for any work done before the honour was conferred.  There may be some protocol to this, but it needs to be explained. The booklet contains nothing biographical on the performers, so a newcomer to the information as presented wouldn’t have any reason not to believe that the director of the ASMF, at the time, was “Sir Neville Marriner”. Just a footnote would have clarified this, and I should add that the artist naming on Decca Legends for the Lewis recording is historically accurate.

So having now benchmarked the 1961 Lewis Dido & Aeneas (review) on two peripheral counts, let’s move on to the music and size up his and Colin Davis’s ensembles. On paper at least, Davis has greater all-round strength, particularly in the male singers, and his orchestra and choir are at least on a par with Lewis’s ECO and St. Anthony Singers. Davis’s supporting women soloists are also strong, but the obvious difference is in the pivotal role of Dido. Lewis had Janet Baker, who made her career break-through in this role, and for many indelibly defined it. The part was already something of a magnet for divas, with Kirsten Flagstad preceding Baker, and other recordings around the time featuring Jessye Norman, Tatiana Troyanos and a young Emma Kirkby. More recent portrayals have included Della Jones, Maria Ewing and Veronique Gens.

The question might be asked, though: does the opera really need such a stand-out Dido, and would it benefit from greater homogeneity?

Davis chose Josephine Veasey for his Dido, as he also did for his 1969 recording of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Veasey had a distinguished career, mostly in grand opera where, to quote an online bio, “she had the reputation of being a ringing mezzo with the power to project over heavy orchestration”. The Purcell role is clearly not of this scale, so how does her voice adapt? Veasey’s is a light mezzo, lacking the richness of tone some would say the gravitas of Dido’s big moments requires. As well, her relatively straight delivery might seem stiff and unsympathetic. Indeed, if her Dido’s Lament were compared with Baker’s or any of the others mentioned, it might promptly be declared “no contest”. Heard in the context of the opera proper, however, I believe Veasey’s Dido works.

What strikes me about the Davis performance is its freshness and evenness. It’s a cast of high-calibre equals, all doing justice to Purcell’s signature work. As a production without ‘stars’, it may be the better for it, with the whole exceeding the sum of the parts. The buoyant and lively style is a reminder that Davis four years earlier had recorded an acclaimed Handel Messiah in similar vein. It was conventional-lite, so to speak, breaking with the weightier and more turgid fashions of the past, which also applies to the singing in this Dido & Aeneas, where one senses that over-playing the pathos wouldn’t gel stylistically. What comes across more than anything in Davis’s interpretation, without devaluing the underlying tragedy, is that this opera was meant for entertainment.

Sonically, the original Philips recording stands up extremely well. It has that immaculate clarity and balance I remember made Dutch Philips pressings so keenly sought after in LP days. Being digitally remastered for CD and SACD from quadraphonic sources suggests tapes very close to the studio originals were used. In surround sound, the rear channels provide ambience except, for example, during the Act 2 echo chorus “In our deep vaulted cell” where they are used for part of the choir and orchestra. The stereo mix for CD is equally fine.

On its first appearance, this Dido & Aeneas didn’t make the grade. The casting of Josephine Veasey as Dido wasn’t received well, but one wonders how closely the critics listened. The simple absence of take-away highlights shouldn’t define the success or failure of a production such as this. To the contrary, if it encourages one to listen to the whole work, and take in its full splendour, it’s an hour well spent. Add to that the best sound it’s ever had, and this is a reissue well worth re-visiting.

Des Hutchinson



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