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Purcell’sDido and Aeneas
A survey by Ralph Moore
It is surely fair to say that apart from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, no opera by an English composer, with the possible exception of Britten’s Peter Grimes, has found a regular place in the repertoire. It is indubitably a masterpiece but like many works of its era, it virtually disappeared from view after its premiere, presumed to be c.1687, another performance in 1689 and a revival in 1700. It remained neglected until 1895, when it was revived to mark the bicentenary of Purcell's death and then the subsequent 20C resurgence of interest in baroque music got underway. That neglect is partly explained by the continued and longstanding English fixation upon Italian opera – something which Handel experienced when trying to sell oratorios in English - and for two centuries the phrase “English opera” was virtually oxymoronic. Dido and Aeneas is now more likely to be encountered in concert than in the opera house, as with a duration of less than hour, to constitute an evening’s entertainment it must be paired with something. Quite what that could be in order to create the late 17C programmatic equivalent of “Cav ‘n Pag” is a poser; nothing much leaps to mind and modern audiences have no taste for the 18C practice of breaking it up into chunks to be performed as musical interludes to a play. Furthermore, its music, although often sublime, is relatively simple and unadorned, it being essentially a “chamber opera” composed for amateur performance by girls of Josiah Priest’s Chelsea School for Young Gentlewomen, their chorus supplemented by youths from a nearby Hatton Garden school. That obviously imposed constraints upon its scope and necessitated playing down the erotic element of the story, apart from a brief mention of “one night enjoyed”. Furthermore, unlike many baroque operas, there would have been no elaborate sets or machinery beyond a thunder sheet, so in a sense the opera can be regarded as modern and minimalist in its focus upon the psychomachia of the two main characters and the drama of the conflict between duty and passion, culminating in death and betrayal; “Grand Opera” on the scale of Berlioz’ Les Troyens it is not, even if the two works treat of the same plot.
There is no original manuscript score; the sung mythological prologue, the ‘Groves Dance’ which ends Act 2, several other dances and a spoken epilogue have all been lost, although we know of their existence from the surviving libretto, which is possibly the one used in the first performance. One commonly employed expedient is to plug some of the musical gaps with borrowings from other of Purcell’s works. Act 2, in particular is problematic as although the libretto indicates otherwise, the surviving manuscript score ends abruptly with a recitative from Aeneas in the wrong key, so many recordings provide a more satisfactory conclusion by simply repeating the Ritornelle which opens the scene and returns us to its principal key, D minor. The dance interludes were important, as Priest was a dancing-master and professional choreographer who would have considered that skill to be an important part of the girls’ education and the frequency and prominence of the dances give the work something of the character of a court masque – which it perhaps originally was. The orchestration is spare: four-part strings and continuo. The latter might have featured a guitar as two dances for guitar are indicated in the libretto and we know Purcell favoured the instrument. There is a tendency apparent in some recordings to be over-zealous in reducing the instrumentation to a mere handful of players when surely the original performance had rather more in order to fill the space and I like to see the band augmented by a few more strings and perhaps other period wind or string instruments such as recorders or a theorbo.
By far the most famous piece of music is “Dido’s Lament” – “When I am laid in earth”, requiring great steadiness of tone, seamless legato and heart-rending emotional expressivity. The role of Dido may be sung either by a soprano or a mezzo-soprano, but it seems to me that whatever the voice-type chosen it should have sufficient dark, dusky colours to do justice to the music. Janet Baker established a precedent for Dido to be sung by a mezzo - the music never rises above G - and a stream of great singers such as Tatiana Troyanos and soprano Falcon Jessye Norman have since followed her lead. Similarly, Aeneas, rather like Debussy’s Pelléas, may be sung either by a tenor, a high baryton-Martin or a regular baritone; again, I think the lower voice-category suits the role better and also complements the mezzo-soprano timbre. The Sorceress may be a mezzo-soprano, contralto, countertenor or even a bass (as per the professional revival in 1700) in pantomime dame tradition, and the minor role of Mercury may be cast as either a treble, soprano, countertenor or baritone. We do not know the provenance of the original male singers; perhaps they were from the Hatton Garden school mentioned above and it could be that Thomas Durfey, who wrote the spoken epilogue and apparently had a fine voice, sang Aeneas.
The main focus in the opera is upon Dido’s psychological depth and complexity; she is first tormented by doubt then by Aeneas’ infidelity. As a result, great singers like Kirsten Flagstad have understandably been attracted to the role. Purcell and his librettist Nathum Tate make little of Aeneas's psychology and he is decidedly of secondary importance, remaining something of a boastful, one-dimensional bore except in the brief scene where he wrestles with his conscience. The role of the Sorceress offers a good cameo appearance and some critics have even suggested that she represents Dido’s alter ego, hence in Niquet’s recording the same singer sings both roles. I don't really see it, myself; too much post-Freudian psycho-babble, if you ask me. Otherwise, all the other roles are supplementary or comprimario in nature but a strong ensemble is still required as there are several lovely, individual set pieces and a weak singer in any of them severely compromises the impact of such a relatively short work.
Any regular readers will know that I am disinclined to be complimentary about tenors whose voices I consider to be of the Strangulated Kermit/Mixed Falsetto variety, so Messrs Pears and Bostridge will not be accorded the Moore Stamp of Approval below – and a fat lot they should care what I think (especially Pears, for obvious reasons) - but I will go to my grave wondering how such singers can be considered to exhibit legitimate sound and technique in comparison with properly registered and produced lyric tenor voices like those of Fritz Wunderlich (who sang a lot of baroque music but unfortunately not Aeneas). In any case, Aeneas has almost invariably been sung by a baritone, probably as per the first performances, and many of those below who sing it are very fine, even though the role is not especially rewarding.
He might not have been a great poet, but Nahum Tate’s libretto skilfully compresses the essence of Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid into three short acts in crisp rhyming couplets, excising Greek gods and replacing them with his own supernatural element of the Sorceress – who might have been intended as a personification embodying the meretricious allure of the Catholic Church, thereby covertly functioning as Protestant propaganda. The three witches appear to have been imported from Macbeth, and the doleful dénouement of the opera is depicted as being the result of the intervention of malign forces determined to do evil for its own sake, so the “Mercury” who reminds Aeneas of his duty to found Rome is in fact a fraudulent spirit messenger from the “Weird Sisters”. We begin “in medias res”, secure in the knowledge that the audience is familiar with the tale from classical antiquity of the Fall of Troy and Aeneas’s flight to Carthage. The tone of the opera is uncertain throughout, as it presents an uneasy admixture of both comic and grotesque elements but builds to a tragic conclusion, with Dido’s death – whether by suicide or according to that old romantic trope, “a broken heart”, it is not clear - and the choral benediction.
Purcell’s masterly use of ground bass and his gift for fitting music naturistically to speech rhythms are notable throughout. Period instrument recordings feature from the late 70’s onwards and of course they are entirely appropriate for – some would say indispensable to – performances of this work but I try not to discount versions using regular, modern orchestration as long as it is not too thick or bloated. Indeed, I am not especially exercised by whether modern or original instruments are employed, as the orchestration is in any case always reduced compared with later operatic genres and what matters are the mood and spirit of the playing.
It is a work which in length and atmosphere lends itself ideally to that format for armchair listening. I review below thirty recordings - almost all of which are available on CD or as downloads. Once the revival of interest in the opera, combined with the redoubled enthusiasm for authenticity, gathered pace, a whole stream of studio recordings was produced in the 80’s and 90’s and that continues to this day, so there is no shortage of recordings in best sound and we can afford to be picky when selecting a favourite.
1945 Constant Lambert; Opera d'Oro (mono)
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
Dido Queen of Carthage : Joan Hammond
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Isobel Baillie
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Joan Fullerton
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Dennis Noble
Sorceress: Edith Coates
First Witch: Edna Hobson
Second Witch: Gladys Ripley
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Sylvia Patriss
First Sailor: Trefor Jones
The boomy, mono sound here and its tendency to accentuate a shrill, warbling quality in Joan Hammond’s voice diminish the attractions of this vintage recording but it is good hear how even this early Purcell’s rhythms are executed in such spritely fashion; there is nothing sluggish about Lambert’s direction or the well-sprung orchestral playing or the chorus’ contribution. Denis Noble sounds young but was already in his late 40’s and demonstrates his exemplary diction and warm tone as Aeneas. Isobel Baillie sings with a typically pretty, bell-like timbre and the supporting cast features plenty of firm, well-tuned voices even if some share Hammond’s tremulous vibrato. In spite of that, she sings her Lament movingly, sustaining the long lines with pathos and dignity and, like Noble, enunciating clearly.
Boris Ord’s harpsichord is quite prominent in the continuo but not overbearing. For obvious reasons this is included only for historical interest but it’s surprising to hear how well this pioneering account works.
1952Geraint Jones; EMI (mono)
Mermaid Orchestra and Chorus
Dido Queen of Carthage : Kirsten Flagstad
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Thomas Hemsley
Sorceress: Arda Mandikian
First Lady: Eilidh McNab
First Witch: Sheila Rex
Second Witch: Anna Pollak
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
First Sailor: David Lloyd
My colleague Jonathan Woolf reviewed this approvingly back in 2007 and I largely endorse his view. I was immediately struck by the depth of the mono sound and the beauty of the orchestral playing in the overture. The contrast between Flagstad’s and Schwarzkopf’s voices is apt and satisfying but his points about the absurdity of casting the latter as Second Woman and her twittery archness still obtain. Her voice is so distinctive that having her sing no fewer than three roles comes across as decidedly disconcerting. As with her contemporaneous recording of Isolde for Furtwängler, Flagstad is clearly “mature” but grand and steady, a little scooping apart, with secure, rounded top Gs. I differ with Jonathan in that I do not find Thomas Hemsley’s Aeneas very glamorous; to my ears he is grey of tone and has that typical “English bank manager” demeanour. Greek-Armenian Arda Mandikian has a big, clean, clear mezzo with the requisite developed lower register and a nice line in vehemence. It must be said that her sung English is impeccable – and that is true of the other two non-native principal female singers, too. David Lloyd sings a neat, rather polite Sailor’s Song. The supporting cast is fine and the choir nimble and energised.
For all its virtues, given the strength of competition from more modern versions and its attendant flaws and irritants, I cannot recommend this as more than an interesting and only partially successful historical document. 1959Benjamin Britten; BBC Music (mono)
English Opera Group Orchestra & Purcell Chorus
Dido Queen of Carthage : Claire Watson
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Jeannette Sinclair
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Patricia Clark
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Peter Pears
Sorceress: Arda Mandikian
First Witch: Jean Allister
Second Witch: Rosemary Philips
Spirit, in form of Mercury: John Hahessy
First Sailor: Michael Ronayne
In clear but rather distant mono sound lacking lower frequencies, this is a serviceable but somewhat characterless account. Claire Watson is a comparatively light-voiced Dido; she sings well but is regrettably faceless and not much differentiated from Jeanette Sinclair’s similarly light, pretty Belinda; nor is there anything special about her ‘Lament’. It is quite hard for the listener to feel much involved, given the remove of the voices, with the instruments and chorus placed far back in the sound picture. The casting of Peter Pears, complete with constricted wobble, was inevitable and to my ears it sounds as if a foppish Gilbert and Sullivan tenor has wandered into the BBC studio by accident and I lose all patience with him. Arda Mandikian repeats the excellent Sorceress she gave Geraint Jones but she was in better, steadier voice in 1953 and again, she is not well partnered here. The use of a boy trebles for both the Spirit the Sailor, is also odd and inappropriate, as they sound too cherubic and I question Britten’s taste in authorising such casting…
The edition by Britten and Imogen Holst has its peculiarities, such as the insertion of the “Hissing Song” from Purcell’s Indian Queen and the chorus “Then since our charms have sped/A merry dance be led” at the end of Act 2 sounds silly and trivial in context. In that most dismissive of critical judgements, “This need not detain us…”
1961Anthony Lewis; Decca (stereo)
English Chamber Orchestra & St. Anthony Chorus
Dido Queen of Carthage : Janet Baker
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Patricia Clark
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Eileen Poulter
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Raimund Herincx
Sorceress: Monica Sinclair
First Witch: Rhianon James
Second Witch: Catherine Wilson
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Dorothy Dorow
First Sailor: John Mitchinson
This recording has always had a special place in collectors’ hearts, above all for the presence of the young Janet Baker, incomparable in the sensitivity of her inflection of the text and the gleaming beauty of her voice. I revisited this set with the thought in mind that nobody else is especially engaging here, unless you relish Monica Sinclair’s turn as an almost comically stentorian and macabre Sorceress. I find that I now rather enjoy it, especially as she has a rich, steady voice, but I concede that she overdoes the Grand Guignol and her fellow witches – including a chorus of men “ha-ha-ing” away like mad – follow her lead con gusto. However, the playing of the ECO is lovely, too, Patricia Clark is a winning Belinda and I very much like John Mitchinson’s virile sailor – what a pleasant change to have a Tristan voice undertake the role and give it some welly; he sounds like a proper roistering mariner rather than an effete swain. Raimund Herynx’ Aeneas is a bit plain, unadorned and lacking glamour but he is strong-voiced and convincing enough as a warrior.
To sum up, I am obliged to revise my previous mixed opinion of this and agree that Decca were right to issue as one of their “Legends”; I accord it a place among the best.
1962/3Alfred Deller; Vanguard; Alto (stereo)
Oriana Orchestra and Chorus
Dido Queen of Carthage : Mary Thomas
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Honor Sheppard
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Ellen Dales
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Maurice Bevan
Sorceress: Helen Watts
First Witch: Honor Sheppard
Second Witch: Ellen Dales
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Robert Tear
First Sailor: Robert Tear
I was not familiar with Welsh soprano Mary Thomas but find that she had truly lovely voice: rich, with an attractive, flickering vibrato and a naturally plaintive timbre ideal for the role of Dido. The young Helen Watts brings her warm, flexible contralto to the role of the Sorceress, sounding both menacing and authoritative. Maurice Bevan is a steady, even-voiced Aeneas, if a bit dry of tone and, like Hemsley for Geraint Jones a decade earlier (see above), has something of the bank clerk about him - but it takes a special singer of exceptional vocal beauty to do much with the role. Honor Sheppard is a delightful Belinda and Ellen Dales a sweet Second Woman but they both assume squawky “crone voices” as the witches and that’s a miscalculation. It’s also a pity that the ubiquitous Robert Tear doubles up as the Spirit and Sailor but as the former he is placed in a distant acoustic which mercifully softens his constricted timbre. I also wonder why his Sailor’s song has such a lumpen tempo and delivery, when in general the music here is well sprung.
Both the orchestra and small chorus are ideal, applying those little nudges of rallentando and expressive hesitations in the slow sections, and the fire and propulsion in the fast passages which Purcell’s music cries out for.
There is much to enjoy here and recording is available very cheaply on the Alto label in sound which has considerable depth for its age, but I don’t think I would enjoy repeated exposure to those elements which irk me.
1965John Barbirolli; EMI (stereo)
English Chamber orchestra & Ambrosian Singers
Dido Queen of Carthage : Victoria de los Ángeles
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Heather Harper
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Elizabeth Robson
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Peter Glossop
Sorceress: Patricia Johnson
First Witch: Clare Walmesley
Second Witch: Sybil Michelow
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Sybil Michelow
First Sailor: Robert Tear
Clearly the main attractions here should be Glorious John and Victoria de los Ángeles, but both take a very leisurely, not to say inappropriately Romantic, approach to this music and the result is not successful. Barbirolli aids and abets his beloved soprano in swooping, cooing and mooning all over the music such that half the time she sounds flat as she slides up to notes in what is presumably meant to be an expressive manner. Her English is impeccable but temperamentally and stylistically she is all wrong. Barbirolli’s direction of the chorus and large orchestra is heavy, heavy, heavy; try “In our Deep Vaulted Cell” to hear them at their worst - the ECO sounds like the Berlin Phil playing Strauss. The music often threatens to grind into the sand and stop altogether, Barbirolli is so intent upon making it sound like Mahler; the introduction to the Sorceress’ entry carries no menace whatsoever, although Patricia Johnson’s fine, imposing singing brings some compensations as she fights against the testudinal tempo. As a result, the recording is a shade under an hour instead of the usual duration of just over fifty minutes but’s not just a question of timings; Leppard with Jessye Norman has a similar timing but he and Norman hold it together because he phrases much better, through the note, and she has a much steadier, sustained legato and does not resort to puling the music about. As a result, a number of fine voices are wasted here; Peter Glossop is good as Aeneas with an heroic edge to his baritone, but when Robert Tear makes yet another appearance as a whining Sailor, my cup runneth over…
I am usually a big Barbirolli fan but this is an out-and-out misfire. Avoid.
1967Charles Mackerras; DG (stereo)
Chamber Orchestra of the North German Radio & Monteverdi Choir
Dido Queen of Carthage : Tatiana Troyanos
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Sheila Armstrong
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Margaret Baker
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Barry McDaniel
Sorceress: Patricia Johnson
First Witch: Margaret Baker
Second Witch: Margaret Lensky
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Paul Esswood
First Sailor: Nigel Rogers
This sounds remarkably modern for so old a recording, so there is no need to worry that this might sound "old-fashioned"; it is lithe and remarkably well-informed, having taken cognisance of the latest scholarship then available so, from a musicological point of view, it was well ahead of its time. The orchestral sound is full and grand but also spritely when required. It includes some five minutes of extra music sourced by Neville Boylng from other works by Purcell, transcribed and transposed to fill the gaps at the end of Act II and supply the missing guitar music.
Tatiana Troyanos has the flickering intensity and oboe tones to convey Dido's grief plausibly; she had a beautiful, very distinctive voice and she caresses her music almost as feelingly as Janet Baker. Her lower register is especially full and powerful. Barry McDaniel as Aeneas is almost as fine as Thomas Allen for Leppard and sounds very similar; he, too, has the finesse and subtlety to do much with the little music he is given; Patricia Johnson is a trenchant Sorceress, repeating the powerful, properly sung account she gave Barbirolli - which proved to be the best thing on that recording. If anything, she is better here and the reverberance the engineers create to surround her voice enhances her impact. Her fellow witches also sing rather than croak but still sound malevolent. Sheila Armstrong sings brightly and beautifully as Belinda, if not, perhaps, quite as beguilingly as, for example, Marie McLaughlin for Leppard. Countertenor Paul Esswood is good as the Spirit – pure and steady but nowhere near as eerie as Derek Lee Ragin. Nigel Rogers’ Sailor is a bit bland and nasal; nor is the rest of the cast quite up to the standard we hear on the very best recordings.
There are some effective production touches which accentuate a theatrical atmosphere as characters enter and exit, and the sound is excellent for its day. The German chorus manage English idiomatically and in an authentic-sounding manner. Were it not for even better recordings, this would be a top recommendation and no-one acquiring it will be disappointed.
1970 Colin Davis; Philips; Avie; Pentatone (stereo)
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields & John Alldis Choir
Dido Queen of Carthage : Josephine Veasey
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Helen Donath
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Delia Wallis
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: John Shirley-Quirk
Sorceress: Elizabeth Bainbridge
First Witch: Delia Wallis
Second Witch: Gillian Knight
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Thomas Allen
First Sailor: Frank Patterson
Des Hutchinson reviewed this approvingly in 2016, suggesting that it had been badly undervalued on its first appearance by critics who failed to appreciate that Davis’s main intent was to break with weightiness and instead maintain a lighter, more entertaining style. The overture signals his intent: it is sprightly with crisp phrasing; the mood is maintained by an especially piquant harpsichord continuo.
Davis has some major voices in his cast. I have always loved Josephine Veasey’s firm, bright, ample mezzo and consider her to be still a grossly under-rated singer. She sings out bravely, bringing the same plangency to her portrayal as she did with another Dido for Davis in his recording of Berlioz’ version. Her individual timbre is well contrasted with Helen Donath’s limpid soprano – and the American Donath is careful to maintain a very RP English accent! Shirley-Quirk’s deep, manly tones make a convincing change from the effete boys or visiting uncles who try to pass for Aeneas in some recordings – and he is really moving in his dilemma. Elizabeth Bainbridge was a dependable contralto fixture at Covent Garden for many years throughout my youth and makes the listener sit up with the vehemence and power of her delivery. (She is 90 in her retirement as I write; kudos to her!) She is ably supported by a fine brace of witches – OK; I am going to say it yet again: where are comparable voices today? Comprimario singers back then would be stars today. A final treat: a young Tom Allen as the faux-Mercury Spirit; he sounds like a god, not a fairy. Frank Patterson is too nasal as the Sailor but at least he is masculine and the final, benedictional chorus is tender, restrained and touching.
The spring and momentum Davis generates are evident in the rhythmic sharpness of the choir and orchestra and I find myself swept along by this tautest and most compact of dramas, especially as it is not afflicted by the kind of lethargy Barbirolli unfortunately engendered.
The analogue sound is superb: warm and clear; the ASMF is on fine form in music which surely suited their sonance, repertoire and sensibility.
This was one of the surprises of my survey. Davis really brings this music alive and as you can tell, I love it.
1975 Steuart Bedford; Decca (stereo)
Aldeburgh Festival Strings Orchestra & London Opera chorus
Dido Queen of Carthage : Janet Baker
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Norma Burrowes
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Felicity Lott
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Peter Pears
Sorceress: Anna Reynolds
First Witch: Felicity Palmer
Second Witch: Alfreda Hodgson
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Timothy Everett
First Sailor: Robert Tear
The blighting presence of Peter Pears and, to a lesser extent, Robert Tear, has always deterred me from listening to this recording, especially as Janet Baker may be heard in freshest voice in her famous 1961 version, also on Decca. Given my aversion to Pears and the fact that Dame Janet’s incomparable account is enshrined in that earlier account, I see little point in preferring this one, although it obviously has its many merits, including better sound. Baker is darker and heavier of voice here than for Lewis – still lovely but a little cloudy, not quite as pure and shining of tone as before. Norma Burrowes – then married to the conductor (whose passing, incidentally, was announced while I was writing this survey) - is, predictably, absolutely charming as Belinda. Her early retirement from the stage to devote herself to motherhood was a loss but she left many excellent recordings, such as this. There is a whole clutch of first-rate singers in the cast here but none of that matters when Pears opens his mouth; you could drive a Winnebago through his wobble and I metaphorically head for the hills, gently screaming. In case I am tempted to return, there is always Robert Tear’s bleating Sailor to ensure that I stay away.
1977 Raymond Leppard; Erato (stereo)
English Chamber Orchestra & English Chamber Chorus
Dido Queen of Carthage : Tatiana Troyanos
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Felicity Palmer
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Elizabeth Gale
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Richard Stilwell
Sorceress: Patricia Kern
First Witch: Alfreda Hodgson
Second Witch: Linn Maxwell
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Alfreda Hodgson
First Sailor: Philip Langridge
This 1977 recording has been overshadowed by the later Leppard version starring the voluptuously voiced Jessye Norman, yet Tatiana Troyanos' second Dido here is almost as richly sung as Norman’s and has the advantage of more spirited, "sprung" direction than Mackerras gave Troyanos in 1968, as much as I like that earlier recording.
Another bonus is Felicity Palmer as Belinda whose tangy mezzo bids fair to upstage her sister queen and mistress but is not, perhaps, as well-contrasted with Troyanos’ Dido as is ideal, as both have dark, velvety, vibrant vices. As such, she is not as apt as a maidservant but I have always so much enjoyed her voice that I count her presence as a blessing. The supporting cast reads like a who's who of the best in British female singers from the 70's, with names like Patricia Kern as a strong, maleficent Sorceress and Elizabeth Gale and Alfreda Hodgson as Second Woman and First Witch/Spirit respectively - though the latter is hardly eerie as the Spirit, simply imposing.
Richard Stilwell has a glamorous, expressive baritone with some heroic bite and is thus on a level with Thomas Allen and Barry McDaniel. (Weirdly, he pronounces his own name “classically” as Ay-nay-as…whatever.) Philip Langridge sings neatly but rather boringly as the Sailor. The chorus is over-reverberantly distanced, so their words are muffled but they are certainly lively enough.
This might not be perfect in terms of characterisation or sound but Troyanos has one of those very beautiful and individual voices that you can just drink in and I would say that any lover of this opera and her sound should have one of her two studio recordings.
1981Andrew Parrott; Chandos (stereo)
Taverner Consort and Players
Dido Queen of Carthage : Emma Kirkby
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Judith Nelson
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Judith Rees
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: David Thomas
Sorceress: Jantina Noorman
First Witch: Emily van Evera
Second Witch: Rachel Bevan
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Tessa Bonner
First Sailor: Rachel Bevan
I am not claiming that this opera requires singers with the same weight of voice as is required for Wagner, but I do think it is a mistake to default to the old position that very light, trilling voices will do in baroque opera – and a number of the performers here simply do not have the heft or presence to give the music sufficient tonal or emotional impact. We must start with Emma Kirkby. Her pure, disembodied, choir-boy sound is famous but it conveys not a hint of the voluptuous or sensual, which is surely not right for Dido; even her little curlicue vocal ornamentations sound as chaste as ice. Judith Nelson’s breathy soprano comes across as weak and impersonal right from her opening aria; indeed, all the female voices here are virtually indistinguishable in timbre one from another and the whole cast, including the chorus, sings so tentatively as to suggest that they are frightened of offending the listener by sounding too enthusiastic and involved. Jantina Noorman’s hoarse, cloudy Sorceress nearly made me fall off my chair on first hearing; she is certainly scary but in the wrong way: the main danger must have been to her vocal cords. I have rarely heard anything so poor and embarrassing on a supposedly professional, commercial recording and David Thomas’ nasal baritone sounds more like a genial uncle than the Trojan captain.
Furthermore, this is “period plus” sound: a tiny band of thin, acid, vibratoless strings with dubious intonation and a generally under-nourished air. I know these were early days in the authentic movement but Harnoncourt was going down the same road to much more pleasing effect. If you want “nice singing” – Noorman’s pain in the ears apart - this is for you, but I think this work has more to offer than this pallid effort. Just ghastly.
1982 Nikolaus Harnoncourt; Teldec (digital)
Concentus Musicus Wien & Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Dido Queen of Carthage : Ann Murray
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Rachel Yakar
Second Woman, another Handmaiden:
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Anton Scharinger
Sorceress: Trudeliese Schmidt
First Witch: Elisabeth von Magnus
Second Witch: Helrun Gardow
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Paul Esswood
First Sailor: Josef Köstlinger
This is a typically crisp, energised account from Nikolaus Harnoncourt directing two specialist orchestral and choral ensembles, recorded in full, clear, early digital sound, eschewing any fussy ornamentation.
The quality of singing is high; we first hear Rachel Yakar’s bell-like tone, singing in excellent English but for some reason her diction subsequently goes to pot, so the text of her opening aria of Act 2, scene 2 “Thanks to these lonesome vales” is obscured. Several singers here are not native speakers. Some intermittently manage to sound impressively idiomatic - Josef Köstlinger even seems to adopt the precedent of affecting an authentic West Country accent - but others struggle to make their words clear in comparison with home-grown performers and outfits. The weakest in that regard is Elisabeth von Magnus’ Second Woman; I am afraid I cannot make out any of her words in
her aria “Oft she visits this lone mountain". Trudeliese Schmidt’s Sorceress, too, is accented, although I suppose that matters less in such an exotic role. She is vocally quite strong and characterful, if rather too given to husky crooning and sliding, and her lower notes are often out of tune. Anton Scharinger’s Aeneas is a bit “woofy” and swallowed, so he sounds prosaic. However, I like the innovation of Paul Esswood's nearly whispering the Spirit’s commands; it is eerie and works better than his more straightforward version for Mackerras.
On first hearing, the entrance of Irish mezzo Ann Murray took me by surprise. This is a role which often brings out the best in a singer; the words and music are so expertly combined as to sit perfectly on the voice and Murray, like her Welsh mezzo-soprano contemporary Della Jones (see below), has never sounded better. She is a fine vocal actress and she manages a moving Lament, with some beautiful, soft singing.
Good as some of this is, especially Ann Murray’s Dido, the cloudy diction of too many performers here is problematic and I find the recording overall to be somewhat lacking in atmosphere; it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the mystery and magic of this score, almost as if it is…dare I say? – too efficiently Germanic. 1985William Christie; Harmonia Mundi (digital)
Les Arts Florissants
Dido Queen of Carthage : Guillemette Laurens
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Jill Feldman
Second Woman, another Handmaiden:
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Philippe Cantor
Sorceress: Dominique Visse
First Witch: Agnès Mellon
Second Witch: Barbara Borden
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Etienne Lestringant
First Sailor: Michel Laplénie
This comes from almost exactly the same stable as the preceding Parrott recording: crisp, brisk and frisky. The difference is that Christie also manages to make Purcell seem more like Lully, with lots of swelling and squeezing of notes which sounds French, not apt for the England of the Glorious Revolution. We immediately hear a small, nasal Belinda of no vocal distinction. Enter Dido. Everyone else seems satisfied with Guillemette Laurens’ portrayal of the tormented queen; I don’t think it’s me, but I am not. No critic I have read remarks upon its flaws and peculiarities: strange, plummy, etiolated vowels, an essential unsteadiness in emission and a throaty, constricted tonal production. Those are major and essentially fatal disqualifications, but if you want a succession of squeaky little voices singing in quasi-RP - “yaw” and “persuawe” for “you” and “pursue”, for example - this recording is for you. The Aeneas cannot hold a note for long before, like a parody of bad Gallic style, his tremolo takes over. Of course, we have to have a pantomime dame Sorceress in Dominique Visse’s yowling, mewling assumption and his affected manner is echoed by his two lady companions. That might dramatically and historically valid but it doesn’t do much for the music itself and falls ungratefully on the ear. The Prelude to the Sailor’s Song is limp and devoid of joyful spring and I’m not sure if the less-than-generously-vocally-endowed French tenor who sings it is attempting an English regional accent but what emerges is, as the French say, “un peu special”; we hear, “nemphs” for “nymphs”, “mooerning” and “retoooerning”, “entending”, “mar” for “more” – I won’t go on. This is an unmitigated horror – a paradigm of bad period practice.
1985Raymond Leppard; Philips (digital)
English Chamber Orchestra
Dido Queen of Carthage : Jessye Norman
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Marie McLaughlin
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Elizabeth Gale
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Thomas Allen
Sorceress: Patricia Kern
First Witch: Helen Walker
Second Witch: Della Jones
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Derek Lee Ragin
First Sailor: Patrick Power
This was recorded as long ago as 1985 but “period awareness” was already extant, so it is not heavy or soupy; indeed, Leppard uses small, alert forces and instils lots of spring into his rhythms, giving the music a crisp, incisive bite but also the weight and depth of sound derived from playing modern instruments in baroque style – which is a good compromise. Phrasing is flexible and the bitter-sweet harmonies emerge very clearly. Jane Glover directs a subtle, versatile chorus who can be refined, raucous, bucolic or wistful as the mood requires.
Everything works in this account: Norman is able when required to lighten her velvety timbre to convey vulnerability but she can roll out big, glossy tones for her grandest moments. Tom Allen's neat, flexible and virile baritone is ideal and he is most moving in his brief passages of conflict. Marie McLaughlin's Belinda is delightful, even if her diction is occasionally a little occluded – she has a fuller, rounder sound than some who sing Belinda but that does not matter given that she is up against Norman. The supporting cast contains some famous names. I especially like Derek Lee Ragin's ethereal and sinister Spirit, the best on disc, while Patrick Power's sailor is suitably robust and characterful, backed up by the chorus in full rustic mode. Patricia Kern repeats the excellent Sorceress she gave Leppard eight years earlier in his recording with the equally impressive Troyanos, characterising strongly without overdoing it, and she has a lovely firm voice. Her fellow witches, too, sing rather than squawk and their laughter is harsh but not a cackle; overdone “wickedness” is wearisome in repeated listenings to a recording. McLaughlin and Elizabeth Gale respectively make a superb job of their brief arias opening Act 2, Scene 2, singing with crystalline poise.
However, in the end, it's Norman's glorious tour de force as Dido which most counts; she invests her every utterance with either the stately grandeur or the plangent suffering it requires and thus her interpretation stands alongside Janet Baker's as a monument to her voice and art. She exhibits such control of the long line and makes skilful use of portamento; she even has a trill. The Lament might be indulgently protracted but when the voice and expression are that good, it would be churlish to complain - and when she opens up the sound is huge.
The recording quality is excellent – just the right acoustic and balance are achieved. The vocal and instrumental echoes and thunder effects in Act 2 are perfectly distanced, too.
If you respond to the performance style here as I do, you will concede that this is flawlessly executed.
N.B. this recording chooses not to import any music to complete Act 2, so it remains rather unbalanced, concluding abruptly in the “wrong” key – but that is a minor issue.
1988Trevor Pinnock; DG (digital)
The English Concert
Dido Queen of Carthage : Anne Sofie von Otter
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Lynne Dawson
Second Woman, another Handmaiden:
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Stephen Varcoe
Sorceress: Nigel Rogers
First Witch: Elisabeth Priday
Second Witch: Carol Hall
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Kym Amps
First Sailor: Nigel Rogers
Lovely orchestral playing from the English Concert in the overture sets a promising tone for this recording. Lynne Dawson and Anne Sofie von Otter both have premium quality voices and are nicely contrasted, the former light and pure without being too soubrette in character, the latter, singing in absolutely immaculate English, darker and smokier of tone, phrasing perfectly and introducing a suitably melancholy timbre to her singing; both have ideally inflected vibratos which impart vibrancy without being obtrusive. For once the fact that Stephen Varcoe made an entire career affecting to be a bass-baritone while so obviously being a tenor does not matter in this role. He sings sensitively and is easy on the ear that’s the point: he is rather light and polite for a military hero. I don’t think Nigel Rogers’ tenor Sorceress works; there is little of menace or the macabre in his threats – he just sounds like a bloke singing the Sorceress’ words. He doubles up as the Sailor, but as with his singing of that same role for Mackerras, his nasal tenor isn’t very easy on the ear. Kym Amps is a conventional, rather uninteresting, soprano Spirit. I like Second Woman Sarah Leonard‘s warm-toned “Oft she visits”, as she has more character than some of the singers here. Von Otter’s final scene is up with the best, although her vocal colours there are not quite as varied as those of some rivals.
Chorus and orchestra are exemplary, the latter sounding grainy without being harsh or abrasive. The excellent pairing of Dawson and von Otter apart, this is not an especially striking or characterful account but there is much about it to admire and enjoy.
1989 Ivor Bolton; Teldec (digital)
St. James’s Baroque Players and Chorus
Dido Queen of Carthage : Della Jones
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Donna Deam
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Caroline Ashton
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Peter Harvey
Sorceress: Susan Bickley
First Witch: Nicola Jenkin
Second Witch: Melanie Marshall
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Caroline Ashton
First Sailor: Andrew Murgatroyd
Ivor Bolton directs a very authentic-sounding recording with a pleasantly clangourous harpsichord continuo and a small, groaning, grinding string band. I especially enjoy the atmospheric and faintly Hispanic “Dance Gittars Chacony” and “Gitter ground a Dance” – and I love those variant spellings - of tracks 7 and 17 respectively, and guitars are used prominently throughout, in line with the research and evidence suggesting that Purcell was attached to the instrument. The chorus is elegant and very well balanced but not lacking fervour or animation, especially when they are being witches.
Della Jones is in the best voice I have heard her, singing in a full, quasi-operatic manner which does not underplay the drama but is not fulsome. She has a tangy lower register and just occasionally verges on sounding too much the harridan but I much prefer that to a polite, pusillanimous Dido. Perhaps in her Lament the last ounce of pathos and inwardness found in the interpretations of the greatest exponents of the role is missing but it is still a grand and deeply felt piece of singing. Donna Deam sings a lovely Belinda; Purcell’s music obviously suited her as she also recorded the First Witch (next for Gardner) and the Second Woman for McGegan. Peter Harvey sings an ideal Aeneas; he sounds youthful and passionate, and like his Dido, sings most feelingly. Susan Bickley gets the balance right between managing to sound malicious and not sacrificing beauty of tone. The supporting cast is exemplary although the Spirit Mercury is a bit ingenuous for my taste. Andrew Murgatroyd is a clean-voiced, cheerful Sailor.
This was another unexpected hit in this survey. I know Ivor Bolton to be a highly skilled and versatile conductor, as capable of succeeding in directing Bruckner as he is Monteverdi (see his recording of L’incoronazione di Poppea in my last survey). This is every bit as “HIP” as Andrew Parrott’s effort above but far exceeds it in execution and artistry.
(Robert Hugill reviewed this back in 2010 and I am pleased to note that we are pretty much in agreement.)
1990 John Eliot Gardiner; Philips (digital)
English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir
Dido Queen of Carthage : Carolyn Watkinson
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Ruth Holton
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Elisabeth Priday
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: George Mosley
Sorceress: Teresa Shaw
First Witch: Donna Deam
Second Witch: Shauna Beasley
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Jonathan Peter Kenny
First Sailor: Paul Tindall
With what is probably one of the best choirs in this repertoire and a cast carefully selected so as to establish proper contrasts among the voices, Gardiner directs a fine recording featuring several singers whose names will be familiar to lovers of baroque opera and feature in other versions, too. Carolyn Watkinson’s strong, steady, burnished mezzo is well differentiated from Ruth Holton’s very light Belinda, but she occasionally sounds under the note and Holton sounds rather pale and mousey. There are in fact several aspects of this recording which make it seem too restrained, despite the varied excellence of the choral singing – indeed, the Monteverdi Choir and the orchestra are the stars here – which points to its shortcomings. Teresa Shaw is a conventional Sorceress, singing rather than declaiming the part, which is a relief after some of the campy efforts we hear elsewhere, but having said that, she isn’t very interesting or memorable and no individual voice rivals the best in other accounts. George Mosley is likewise perfectly acceptable but rather bland and neutral as Aeneas and the countertenor Spirit is fine, similar to Paul Esswood for Mackerras, without being especially ethereal. Paul Tindall sings neatly as the Sailor, but…etc.
There are also times, too, when Gardiner defaults into his besetting habit of taking fast passages too briskly so that they threaten to become garbled. Another slight oddity is that to my ears there is something of a veil in the sound, so that the performers sound too removed and resonant compared with crisper recordings. Perhaps the venue had as much to do with that as the engineers. However, that ambience serves the final chorus well, where the choir deliver a nuanced and moving benediction on the deceased Dido.
Despite the admirable choral contribution and some elegant singing, there is something a tad dull and dutiful about this recording, as if Gardiner felt under an obligation to record it just as everyone else had, and it fails to create the same impact as more distinctive versions.
1992Christopher Hogwood; Decca (digital)
Academy of Ancient Music
Dido Queen of Carthage : Catherine Bott
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Emma Kirkby
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Julianne Baird
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: John Mark Ainsley
Sorcerer: David Thomas
First Witch: Elisabeth Priday
Second Witch: Sarah Stowe
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Michael Chance
First Sailor: Daniel Lochmann
I will come clean and say that I have never been much of a fan of Hogwood’s way with baroque music but I try to set prejudice aside when assessing recordings and my first response was satisfaction that Emma Kirkby is so much more aptly cast here as Belinda rather than as Dido: she is light, pretty and youthful-sounding. I also had nothing much good to say about David Thomas’ Aeneas in Parrott’s earlier recording, but here he has been shifted to sing an unusual bass Sorcerer, whereas the Trojan prince here is a tenor, John Mark Ainsley, who sings with clean, boyish, unforced tone.
You may be sure that even thirty years ago Hogwood’s approach was as much in line with “historically informed practice” as possible and the lean, spare sound of the orchestral playing is as you would expect it to be, but the harpsichord is of the soft, warm kind rather than the clanging variety. I also like the sound effects deployed in the Witches’ Cave and “Mercury’s warning” scenes.
Catherine Bott is undoubtedly very good as Dido but if you prefer a duskier tone, her pure soprano might seem to lie too high and her Lament is rather under-stated. However, she sings most expressively in a plaintive, plangent manner, and is still well contrasted with Kirkby. Julianne Baird sings a lovely “Oft she visits”, keeping her fast vibrato just short of a flutter. Michael Chance is a suitably eerie, hooty Spirit.
Unfortunately, Thomas’ Sorcerer is not a success; he sounds forced and unsure about where and how to place his voice so keeps veering between singing and Sprechstimme; a lack of resonance in his low notes points to the fact that he is not a proper bass and his vibrato is shaky. Nope. To cap a disappointing episode, his witch companions over-act and assume silly voices. Finally, I see no point at all in casting the Sailor as a treble – dramatically, it makes no sense and is in fact slightly off-colour given that he is singing about boozing and wenching.
This, in combination with the fact that, as with Gardiner and Pinnock, most of the singing here is pleasing but unremarkable, prevents this from being recommendable over more interesting and better-cast versions.
1993 Nicholas McGegan; Harmonia Mundi (digital)
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Clare College, Cambridge Chorus
Dido Queen of Carthage : Lorraine Hunt
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Lisa Saffer
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Donna Deam
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Michael Dean
Sorceress: Ellen Rabiner
First Witch: Christine Brandes
Second Witch: Ruth Rainero
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Christine Brandes
First Sailor: Paul Elliott
The presence of Lorraine Hunt – recorded here before she married and became Hunt Lieberson – is the main draw here. She was yet another of too large a group of great singers who succumbed to cancer in their early fifties (Lucia Popp, Arleen Augér and Tatyana Troyanos, to name but three) but she left some treasurable souvenirs of her art. The beauty of her voice – warm, rounded, with a flickering vibrato, a resonant lower register and superb enunciation – rivals that of Baker, Norman and Troyanos and its mezzo timbre is just right for the character of Dido, especially when paired against Lisa Saffer’s bright, lissom soprano. Michael Dean is ideal as Aeneas: young, firm and heroic throughout his vocal range. The singers sometimes discreetly ornament their lines, McGegan’s tempi are lithe and brisk, and both the orchestra and chorus are really animated, so the whole recording – made on the back of a series of live performances - fairly bowls along.
So everything is going swimmingly, until…enter an embarrassingly wobbly-voiced Sorceress. Unforgiveable, especially in such vocally distinguished company. The sin is compounded by her two companion witches and chorus doing the squeaky, silly voice shtick that I complain about in my review above of Hogwood’s recording. It just isn’t necessary and it makes a mockery of the music. Donna Deam sings prettily as the Second Woman, Christine Brandes – mercifully released from squawking as First Witch – sings a haunting Spirit, nicely distanced in the sound perspective, and Paul Elliott does the mariner in the good old “ooh-arr” West Country style, as do the chorus members in their rejoinder to his roistering – all good fun. The final chorus is poised, tender and touching – exquisitely sung by the Clare College choir.
As lovely as Hunt’s Dido is, it is no good recommending a recording so flawed in the supernatural department. Such a pity, when so much else is thoroughly enjoyable and her Lament – taken at a sensible speed rather than being too drawn out - is a masterclass in tender, plaintive singing which almost matches Janet Baker’s.
1994Andrew Parrott; Sony Classical; BBC Music Magazine; Avie (digital)
Taverner Consort and Players
Dido Queen of Carthage : Emily Van Evera
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Janet Lax
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Hanne Mari Ørbaek
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Ben Parry
Sorcerer: Haden Andrews
First Witch: Kate Eckersley
Second Witch: Lucy Skeaping
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Sarah Stowe
First Sailor: Douglas Wootton
Coming to this recording for the first time, my immediate question was whether it would be superior to Andrew Parrott’s disappointing first outing thirteen years previously. As far as I am concerned, the answer is no. However, my fellow MusicWeb reviewer and vocal enthusiast Göran Forsling reviewed this more positively while still declaring his first attachment to Leppard and Norman, one of my own favourite recordings, which he describes as being “far from the historically informed camp”, whereas “this present recording is at the other end of the scale”. That observation immediately set off alarm bells for me and, sure enough, the first thing I hear is an instrumental sound which to my ears sounds perilously close to screeching and sliding. I am really not prejudiced against period instruments but simply cannot enjoy the practice in its most extreme – some would say “purest” – form, when I can luxuriate in the music played on modern instruments with steel rather than gut strings and which occasionally indulge in the wicked liberty of a smidgin of vibrato on held notes. It also seems to be a given with some HIP conductors that their singers must have small, disembodied, almost boyish voices, yet that is not the case with some undeniably historically aware recordings such as those by Bolton, Hickox and Pearlman. Emily Van Evera, Janet Lax and the secondary sopranos here all have virtually identical little sopranos and twitter away tastefully in a manner which makes me yearn for what I would ungallantly call “proper singing.”
Matters are not improved by an unsteady and vocally modestly-endowed Aeneas who sounds as if he is about fourteen, an annoying Sailor who sings his whole song through his nose in a “funny” rustic accent, a Drag Queen Sorcerer accompanied by the obligatory squawkers and a weedy, unconvincing Spirit. The Lament is a non-event whereby Dido sounds mildly inconvenienced and the strings groan along sympathetically. The chorus sounds under-nourished and apologetic. Nuff said.
I must therefore part company with my esteemed colleague claiming “de gustibus” as my refuge and defence; you always have the option of ignoring my taste and resorting to Göran’s thorough review for another take on this.
1994 Naxos (digital)
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
Dido Queen of Carthage : Kym Amps
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Anna Crookes
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Ghislaine Morgan
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: David van Asch
Sorceress: Sarah Connolly
First Witch: Ghislaine Morgan
Second Witch: Anna Crooke
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Angus Davidson
First Sailor: Robin Doveton
I am not being snide when I say that I pretty much knew what this recording would sound like before I listened to it. It is very “period”; reduced-scale in performance and sound, with groaning strings, a small chorus – indeed a bit too small - and limited, tidy voices. As with many earlier Naxos recordings, it is a fair bargain introduction to the opera without being anything special and is generally adequately sung - although I am not keen on Anna Crookes’ habit of swelling notes and the amplitude of Kym Amps’ vibrato - but her Lament is a very nice piece of singing. Our Aeneas, however, is of the previously identified “bank clerk” variety with no hint of glamour or allure in his prosaic tone and a cloudy, constricted top. As in other less striking recordings, there isn’t much differentiation between the sopranos singing here; they tend to be neat and pretty with a deficient lower register. Ghislaine Morgan’s Second Woman is typical of that, with a touch of tremolo, that irksome habit of swelling each individual phrase and a failure to resonate lower notes. Predictably, the best thing here by far is Sarah Connolly’s commanding Sorceress – indeed, I think she is superior in this smaller but vital role here to her assumption of the title role fourteen years later. Robin Doveton is a lively, characterful Sailor and Angus Davidson is nicely distanced as the Spirit, but his countertenor is a bit edgy. One peculiarity is that in the famous “Echo Chorus” – “In our deep vaulted cell” –the echoing singers, instead of being placed realistically far back in the aural perspective, sound as if they are still cheek-by-jowl with the lead singers and simply reply to them by singing more softly - a strange production failure.
Ultimately, Connolly’s Sorceress apart, there is nothing very distinctive about this recording.
(The booklet tells us that to resolve the problem of the missing conclusion Act 2, they “have chosen the simple but effective device of repeating in instrumental form the chorus from the beginning of the same scene.”)
1994 William Christie; Erato (digital)
Les Arts Florissants
Dido Queen of Carthage : Véronique Gens
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Sophie Marin-Degor
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Sophie Daneman
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Nathan Berg
Sorceress: Claire Brua
First Witch: Sophie Daneman
Second Witch: Gaelle Mechally
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
First Sailor: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Given what is in my estimation the failure of Christie’s first recording with his usual band, I did not come to this second attempt with high expectations, but I appear to be in the minority when it comes to appreciating both his conducting and Véronique Gens’ soprano; so many people seem to be enraptured by them, whereas I remain underwhelmed or indifferent.
Regarding the former, we hear the same supposedly hyper-authentic instrumental sound as in Christie’s 1985 recording, which leaves me sucking my teeth, a response immediately compounded by the absurdly frenetic tempo he adopts for the Prelude. Swelling, whining, vibratoless phrasing irritates me, too, and I find the squawking, sliding oboe equally unpleasant, so I look for consolation in Gens’ singing. As ever, she strikes me as perfectly pleasant, with a certain facility with phrasing but unremarkable, evincing no especial individuality of utterance and weak low notes. I concede, however, the bell-like sound of her middle and upper voice and her pronunciation of, and way with, the English text, too, with just the occasional vowel slightly distorted, whereas her Belinda, the twittery Sophie Marin-Degor, struggles with the language -so again we have that “yaw” for “you” thing going on again…
Canadian baritone Nathan Berg is first-rate as Aeneas, powerful and moving – a huge improvement over his 1985 equivalent for Christie and by far the best thing in this recording. Unfortunately, we are again treated to another campy witches’ scene with lots of yowling and mewling which soon wears thin; they sustain the squealing throughout both the scenes in which they appear, but it simply isn’t necessary to act up like that in order to enliven the music, as other recordings amply illustrate. Tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s Spirit is an odd choice and nothing about his delivery sounds other-worldly. He sings there in commendable English, which becomes rather less so in the Sailor’s shanty where he has less time to concentrate upon getting his pronunciation right. The chorus is neither as homogeneous nor as tender as the best in the lovely concluding number; individual voices obtrude without blending – and I suspect that are simply too few of them, too.
This clearly marks a considerable qualitative advance on Christie’s earlier studio recording but nothing about it motivates me to recommend it over a score of other, better versions.
1995 Richard Hickox; Chandos (digital)
Collegium Musicum 90
Dido Queen of Carthage : Maria Ewing
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Rebecca Evans
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Patricia Rozario
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Karl Daymond
Sorceress: Sally Burgess
First Witch: Mary Plazas
Second Witch: Pamela Helen Stephen
Spirit, in form of Mercury: James Bowman
First Sailor: Jamie McDougall
Just as Hickox proved to be a superb, surprise exponent of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea in my recent survey, this recording, which had previously passed under my radar, emerges as a top contender – and is also available in an excellent, atmospheric film for which this is the soundtrack (even if there are some inevitable synching issues). The Aeneas is the sadly short-lived Welsh baritone Karl Daymond, who succumbed to a heart attack in 2017; he sings firmly and very expressively – and in the film his dark, Celtic good-looks help him to look the part, too. Rebecca Evans makes a beautiful Belinda and the role of Sorceress suits Sally Burgess, who, I think, too often essayed roles which lay too high for her mezzo but is here first-rate. James Bowman makes an ethereal Spirit. Maria Ewing is a tried and tested vocal actress and rises to the challenge of her final scene, even if her voice does not have the smoky, velvety quality of full mezzos, but she did sing lower roles and still finds darker colouring for her Lament in combination with a kind of desperate, tearful breathiness which is most convincing in its distress yet still falls alluringly on the ear. Jamie McDougall’s Sailor is a bit weedy and constricted – making him the equivalent here of the one singer who flaws Hickox’ Poppea – but this role, by contrast, is fleeting.
The orchestral playing is tangy and sonorous – proper period instruments skilfully played and directed by Hickox, who, like his Aeneas here, left us far too young. This lovely recording only adds to our regret at his premature passing.
1996Martin Pearlman; Telarc (digital)
Boston Baroque Telarc
Dido Queen of Carthage : Nancy Maultsby
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Susannah Waters
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Sharon Baker
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Russell Braun
Sorceress: Laura Tucker
First Witch: Margaret O’Keefe
Second Witch: Donna Ames
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Donna Ames
First Sailor: Richard Clement
I was unfamiliar with Nancy Maultsby, the American mezzo-soprano Dido here – as indeed I was with every singer here apart from the baritone - but I am impressed by the warmth and vibrancy of her voice, which occasionally borders on being a little too fruity and generous but is firm, individual and characterful. She makes the most of her final, big scene, singing out fearlessly as she banishes her faithless lover but finding considerable pain and poignancy in her Lament, even if I concede that her ample vibrato – which is nonetheless never a wobble - will trouble those fastidious about such features. She is partnered with some light, bright sopranos, a lively chorus, a pleasingly astringent period instrument band and a rather prominent harpsichord (perhaps because the conductor both directs from, and plays, it). Furthermore, her Aeneas, Russell Braun (son of the famous baritone, Victor), is up there with the best, possessing a voice remarkably similar in timbre, weight and quality to his Canadian compatriot Nathan Berg for Christie in that otherwise unprepossessing recording. Laura Tucker mercifully sings rather than yells the part of the Sorceress while still sounds threatening and her witch companions don’t overdo the cackling, either. Susannah Waters is an appealing, if slightly breathy, Belinda. Sharon Baker sings the Second Woman’s aria very neatly and prettily. Donna Ames’ Spirit is straightforward but I like something a bit spookier - and she pronounces “command” twice with a flat North American vowel which is inconsistent with the Brit-speak the cast is presumably mostly affecting – unless she is reproducing Restoration English, perhaps? Richard Clement is an ideal Sailor – jolly and rollicking. The chorus is big enough to sound well-blended but is still light on its feet, if just a little to distanced in the sound-picture, and they could have taken a leaf out of the books of Davis’, Leppard’s and McGegan‘s choruses by treating the closing benediction more tenderly – a minor flaw, though.
The sound is full and well balanced but could be a little more sharply focused. The thunder-sheet sounds just as it would have in Purcell’s day, rather than being the product of over-sophisticated modern electronics. This was yet another surprise; it might not be the most distinctive of performances but nothing here grates; everything works and combines to create a thoroughly enjoyable experience. This is a dark horse recommendation.
(In addition to a full, trilingual libretto in the fat booklet, this Telarc issue includes a dozen instrumental pieces from other of Purcell’s works.)
1998 René Jacobs; Harmonia Mundi (digital)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Dido Queen of Carthage : Lynne Dawson
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Rosemary Joshua
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Maria Cristina Kiehr
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Gerald Finley
Sorceress: Susan Bickley
First Witch: Dominique Visse
Second Witch: Stephen Wallace
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Robin Blaze
First Sailor: John Bowen
I am rarely a fan of Jacobs’ recordings but this one has so many virtues that it deserves serious consideration. First, the sonority and plangency of the instrumental playing - including recorders - and the beauty of several solo voices are striking. I am especially impressed by the warmth and vibrancy of Lynne Dawson’s soprano; I do not recall previously hearing such depth of sound and expression from her, and she makes me forget my preference for a mezzo Dido. She might not quite have the smoky timbre of some who have essayed the role but she is still very moving and she is the perfect foil to Rosemary Joshua’s equally vital Belinda, who sings as prettily as any other I have heard. Maria Cristina Kiehr contributes a pleasing Second Woman to make a very successful soprano trio; all have an attractively fast vibrato and a bell-like tone. Gerald Finley’s Aeneas has the same tonal beauty and verbal acuity he displays a decade later in his recording with Sarah Connolly, where, if anything he is even more expressive than here.
I am less enamoured of the supernatural contingent: they opt for the hammy option of squealing through their nose to convey evil, a technique exemplified by Dominique Visse’s pain-in-the-ears contribution as the First Witch, pouncing on words, whereas his countertenor mate, sung by Stephen Wallace, uses the conventional hooty, rounded sound and the pairing is unconvincing. Susan Bickley’s Sorceress is by comparison incongruously understated, replicating the assumption she gave for Ivor Bolton in 1989 but there she was more...well, vindictive, whereas here she is a shade dull. Countertenor Robin Blaze is suitably spectral as the Spirit. John Bowen is a very pleasing Sailor – hearty and unaffected. Unusually, the first part of the final chorus is sung OVPP, which adds a special poignancy to its sentiments.
If I have any criticism of the chorus it is that through no fault of their own, but rather the engineers’, they are placed too far back and too reverberantly in the sound picture. Sometimes the discrepancy between Jacobs’ choices of tempi for the fast and low passages is too great, too, so some sections – for example “Haste, haste” - sound rushed and others threaten to drag. In general, solos are too fast, choruses are too slow, but Dido’s Lament, instead of invoking a sense of timeless grief, almost grinds to a halt. I find the use of modern, recorded thunder and rain as sound effects a little anachronistic – almost every other recording chooses to use the traditional thunder sheet.
If the Two Witches’ contributions and Jacobs’ tempi were more apt, I would count this among the top recommendations. As it is, it's still very enjoyable, the over-funereal pace of the Lament notwithstanding.
2000Hervé Niquet; Glossa (digital)
Le Concert Spirituel
Dido Queen of Carthage : Laura Pudwell
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Salomé Haller
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Marie-Louise Duthoit
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Peter Harvey
Sorceress: Laura Pudwell
First Witch: Salomé Haller
Second Witch: Marie-Louise Duthoit
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Matthew White
First Sailor: Nicholas Maire
The gimmick here is to have the same artist sing the roles of both Dido and the Sorceress, presumably suggesting that one is the alter ego of the other, although to what vivid end I could not say. Two other sopranos also double up roles.
Period instruments with a full texture and good tuning fall gratefully on the ear here, although the manic tempo adopted for the main body of the overture after the slow introduction is a little startling; I am with Celibidache in that I am always faintly puzzled when musicians feel the need to rush good music as if otherwise it would not make the requisite impact; the choruses, too, are frequently rushed. Given the competition, nor am I especially impressed by Laura Pudwell’s slightly cloudy and laboured Dido, which has an edgy top and sometimes skirts with being just under the note. There is nothing especially memorable or absorbing about her Lament; she sings it commendably within the limitations of her voice. As the Sorceress, she overworks her lower register to underline the malevolence of the character and to ensure that we get the point that she is being someone different – or, at least, one discrete side of a split personality. Her two fellow-witches have obviously been encouraged to bawl a bit and the chorus overdoes the “evil”, nasal screeching. Salomé Haller immediately reveals a full, attractive soprano but her English diction is not entirely clear or idiomatic, with the same strange pronunciation of words such as “you” and “ensue” which is noticeable in the largely French recording by Christie on Erato (see above); the contrast with native-speaker Peter Harvey’s light, beautifully sung and enunciated Aeneas, is obvious. This is a problem shared by the chorus but not the clear-voiced Second Woman (and First Witch), Marie-Louise Duthoit, whose sung English is nigh-on impeccable and the postlude to her arioso is graced by a lovely pair of recorders, tastefully deployed in much the same way as René Jacobs uses them in his recording. Matthew White is yet another countertenor who manages the role of the Spirit very satisfactorily. Nicholas Maire similarly makes a decent job of his Sailor’s song without sounding especially rollicking or nautical.
This a mixed bag of a recording; there are things about it which are very pleasing but the central weakness of an ordinary Dido disqualifies it from being a prime recommendation.
2003 Emmanuelle Haïm; Virgin Veritas (digital)
Le Concert d'Astrée & European Voices
Dido Queen of Carthage : Susan Graham
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Camilla Tilling
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Cécile de Boever
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Ian Bostridge
Sorceress: Felicity Palmer
Spirit, in form of Mercury: David Daniels
First Sailor: Paul Agnew
This recording received a highly complimentary review from Allan Kozinn in the New York Times, asserting that it surpassed Parrott's 1981 production (not hard to do, say I) which, according to him, had been the best before this. Kozinn noted the strength of the casting in both the major and minor roles – something with which I would agree with the egregious exception of Ian Bostridge’s constricted tenor, which could surely hardly be less apt for Aeneas; Kozinn’s opinion that in this recording “Dido finally gets a real man” wholly astonishes me. For me, this unfortunate piece of casting is a repeat of the Peter Pears debacle. As usual, Bostridge enunciates the text with merciless clarity, and when he presses for volume, as in his response to the Spirit’s message, his vibrato becomes a rattle, so the effect is always one of listening to the querulous complaints of an aggrieved church warden rather than the protestations of the son of Aphrodite.
Otherwise, a lot works here but there are niggling features, too. I like the way Haim slightly reinforces the orchestration with winds without thickening the melodic textures. The playing and choral singing are alert and spry but, as so often with modern period recordings, some choruses are unduly rushed and Haim often presses very heavily on the down-beat in rather over-emphatic manner. Conversely, “In our deep vaulted cell” is taken too deliberately. I like the way the chorus manipulates the dynamics of the closing phrase but I’m not sure about the “witchy-business-crowd-noise” uproar which substitutes for the Echo Dance of the Furies. Susan Graham’s smallish but beautiful mezzo is in many ways ideal to impersonate Dido, although she perhaps misses some of Dido’s toughness. Her slightly “cupped” tone, frequent pianissimi, mezza voce excursions and fast vibrato make her sound vulnerable and diminish any regal bearing. Perhaps that intimation of weakness is right for a woman who dies as a victim of betrayed love? It seems that a stylistic consensus was operating throughout this recording that the solo singing should be underplayed, as Camilla Tilling is a similarly slightly breathy, tremulous Belinda – pretty, but a bit wan – and exactly the same again is true of the Second Woman, whose English, furthermore, is very indistinct, perhaps because Haim’s frenetic tempo harries her so sorely in her arioso. Felicity Palmer is an incomparable Sorceress, having moved on – or rather down – from a soprano First Witch for Bedford and Belinda for Leppard many years previously; her voice is still in great shape, working in the lower tessitura she adopted as her career advanced. Her witch companions follow her example and convey malevolence via vocal colouring rather than snarling or whining. David Daniels is wonderful as the Spirit; his androgynous voice could not be better tailored to the role. Paul Agnew makes a similarly admirable job of the Sailor – vigorous, hearty and a tad vulgar. The singers generally ornament their vocal lines discreetly and the chorus proves equal to every mood within the constraint of having to contend with Haim’s excessive speeds – but I have heard tenderer epilogues. The thunder and whistling wind are authentically produced without electronics.
I find myself bemused and frustrated by this recording, as so much of it delightful and so much downright vexing. As a result, it is too inconsistent to be a prime recommendation but lovers of this work will still want to hear it.
2004Jed Wentz; Brilliant (digital)
Musica ad Rhenum
Dido Queen of Carthage : Nicola Wemyss
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Francine van der Heijden
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Penni Clarke
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Matthew Baker
Sorceress: Helen Rasker
First Witch: Maaike Poorthuis
Second Witch: Yong-Hee Kim
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Rowena Simpson
First Sailor: Richard Zook
This is a Dutch-Anglophone collaboration of baroque specialists starring Scottish mezzo-soprano Nicola Wemyss. It is available on the bargain Brilliant label either as a single SACD or paired on two CDs with Galliard’s Pan and Syrinx, offering one solution to the pairing question I mentioned in my introduction.
The double issue was reviewed by Christopher Howell and the single reviewed by Colin Clarke in 2005. Both were generally positive but they observed that this is a small-scale performance with young-voiced soloists of variable quality, exhibiting some weaknesses. I am somewhat less enthusiastic about it than they were. This is indeed a minimalist production, with only two violins, viola, viola da gamba, harpsichord, and a baroque guitar; the sound is really spare and acidic to my ears - at least give us just a little aural cushioning rather than paring back the sound to the bone.
On first listening, I immediately became aware of two problems: first rather too reverberant sound and second the usual trademark of too many period performances which is to press too hard on tempi, as if any lingering might be construed as being unduly Romantic. “In our deep vaulted cell” emerges as ridiculously perky, losing all sense of menace.
Contrary to some previous reviewers, I do not hear much distinction between Belinda‘s and Dido’s voices. Francine van der Heijden has impeccable English but a rather scratchy timbre which matches the harshness of the instruments, nor is there much velour in Nicola Wemyss’ voice – and surely Anchises is pronounced with a hard “c” and not with a “ch” as in cheese”? And why are words like “laid” and “fate” pronounced “leed” and “feet”? Matthew Baker’s Aeneas is disappointing: weak, grey and faceless but I like the dark timbre and fast vibrato of the Sorceress, Helene Rasker, even if she sounds a bit too benign. She is well partnered by a brace of witches who really sing their parts but still sound spiteful. Rowena Simpson sounds too cutesy and feminine as the Spirit; Richard Zook is too well-behaved as the Sailor and his low notes go AWOL; his fellow sailors sound similarly strait-jacketed.
The chorus is of a good size and makes the best of being rather distanced, adapting well to each situation apart from sounding too polite as a roistering crew. While I prefer the storm sound-effects to be of the baroque, homespun variety, the thunder-sheet used here is really primitive and unconvincing and the vocal embellishment in the witches’ scene in the form of a sudden, brief outburst of wailing and cackling is oddly curtailed.
In the end, there is nothing special about this recording, least of all in the singing of the lead roles; a dozen others are more engaging. The acid test must be Dido’s Lament which is no more than competently sung with minimal emotional engagement compared with the heart-rending impact of the greatest singers in this role – and the groaning, whining string accompaniment doesn’t help. You can do much better.
2008Steven Devine & Elizabeth Kenny; Chandos (digital)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Choir of the Enlightenment
Dido Queen of Carthage : Sarah Connolly
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Lucy Crowe
Second Woman, another Handmaiden: Sarah Tynan
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Gerald Finley
Sorceress: Patricia Bardon
First Witch: Carys Lane
Second Witch: Rebecca Outram
Spirit, in form of Mercury: William Purefoy
First Sailor: John Mark Ainsley
This jointly directed recording was enthusiastically reviewed on its issue by Michael Greenhalgh and made a Recording of the Month. I concur that it is very fine and also acknowledge his reservations about the legitimacy and desirability of some of the additions made to the score. A number of judiciously selected “extra music” items are interpolated; I refer you to his review for details. Anyone used to the conventionally performed score, which might have at most a few minutes of additional music added, will need to be prepared for those extras which some consider to be redundant and hold up the action of this most compact of opera, extending this performance to 70 minutes instead of the usual fifty-something; others might welcome them as a bonus. However, the ten seconds of modernist cacophony signifying the missing “Horrid Music” at the end of the Echo Dance of the Furies (track 16) is just jarring and silly; entirely anachronistic and a bridge too far. Otherwise, tempi are flexible but generally brisk and sprightly, so there is no risk of longueurs and you can of course always programme out any unwanted numbers. The original instruments employed provide a most attractive colour and texture. The cast is an exceptionally strong one with nary a weak link. Lucy Crowe and Sarah Connolly have beautiful voices and are ideally matched and contrasted; both integrate some discreet ornamentation into their musical lines to intensify their emotional impact and provide additional interest. Gerald Finley brings to the role of Aeneas one of the most elegant and incisive of baritones on the circuit today; he could not be bettered, insofar as he sounds both youthful and heroic and makes the most of his text, rendering Aeneas sympathetic. Equally commendable is Patricia Bardon’s Sorceress; she really sings the role, delving into her capacious lower register and sounding truly baleful – and thank goodness her fellow witches follow her good example and sing rather than squawk. Countertenor William Purefoy delivers a suitably cool, unearthly warning to Aeneas and John Mark Ainsley makes a likeable, straightforward job of the Sailor’s song.
The chorus is well-blended and alert. Sound effects are limited to a thunder sheet and the sound engineering is ideal. Apart from the debate regarding the extra music, my only reservation about this recording concerns what is an almost undefinable element: memorability - in particular, Connolly’s Dido. Somehow, neither she nor the recording is imprinted on my mind in the same way as more individual accounts. Her Lament, no matter how deftly inflected and richly sung, leaves me uninvolved. Some, however, will welcome the absence of the “diva factor” and prefer the balance provided by the excellent ensemble here, rendering my observation nugatory and irrelevant.
2008 Teodor Currentzis; Alpha (digital)
MusicAeterna & The New Siberian Singers
Dido Queen of Carthage : Simone Kermes
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid: Deborah York
First Woman: Margarita Mezentseva
Second Woman: Sofia Fomina
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Dimitris Tiliakos
Sorceress: Oleg Ryabets
First Witch: Yana Mamonova
Second Witch: Elena Kondratovna
Spirit, in form of Mercury: Valiera Safonova
First Sailor: Alexandre Zverev
Teodor Currentzis continues to produce a stream of remarkable and controversial recordings from Novosibirsk, in the depths of Siberia, some of which I consider to be among the best versions of key works that I know and others which I truly think are abominations. At least you aren’t left bored or indifferent by them. The thwack and strum of the strings and the unexpected, twiddly ornamentation in of the opening overture alert listeners to the fact that we are about to hear something different. Deborah York’ s Belinda is conventional enough - and she later sings a delightfully pure “Thanks to these lonesome vales” - but Simone Kermes then sings “Ah! Belinda” in a breathy, mesmerising, half-voice which is most arresting and could probably only carry in front of a microphone rather than live on stage. It immediately invokes a vivid and absorbing depiction of a tormented soul and I admit to being initially captivated by it while simultaneously acknowledging its eccentricity. Nonetheless, Dido is not a role which can be carried off by whispering alone and a sustained approach of that kind can soon become an affectation. Kermes does, however, summon up some vocal heft for her dismissal of Aeneas before defaulting to her hushed pianissimo mode for the Lament. The unprecedently prolonged, sustained drone Currentzis engineers before she starts to sing “Your counsel all is urg’d in vain” creates an unearthly ambience and she proceeds to weave a bewitching tissue of floating, ethereal tone.
She might be German, but Kermes’ English is flawless and she eschews most of the vocal mannerisms which irked me, for example, in her recordings of Mozart operas for Currentzis. She portrays a fragile, sensitive, tormented soul and normally I would regret the lack of queenly dignity in such a characterisation but its conviction and intensity sweep me along. Having said that, not all Currentzis’ gambits pay off: the rough, exaggerated percussiveness of the dotted rhythms in choruses such as “Fear no danger to ensue” is just absurd, making them sound like tribal war dances, wholly anachronistic and totally incongruous with the music’s English origins. That foreign strangeness is exacerbated by the chorus’ exotic English accent. Dimitris Tiliakos – who is Greek, like the conductor – has a pleasant, if rather stolid, baritone but also struggles to sound idiomatic in English, pronouncing “pity” as “peety”, “will” as “wheel” and “royal” as “Roy-al” – and he makes a mistake in “Offend the Gods” which should have been re-recorded. Oleg Ryabets’ dark Sorceress is similarly exotically accented – which matters less, given the role, but surely “the Queen of Cartage(sic)” should also have been retaken, unless Dido is presumed to have a little earner side-line in the transportation business. Valiera Safonova as the Spirit sounds convincingly like a treble so avoids seeming unduly dainty, but a weedy, wheezy tenor sings the Sailor, again in poor English.
The orchestration is heavily enhanced with supplementary instruments such as a theorbo and percussion, Drums and chime bars are used to suggest the storm, which works well, but to be honest, the listener is so distracted by wondering how Currentzis is next going to re-invent the music to make it sound like Rameau that such embellishments can go almost unnoticed. He frequently asks for extreme dynamic contrasts from both the singers and the orchestra, sometimes to either startling or enchanting effect. Tempi can be idiosyncratic, too; hence, although, like so many period practitioners Currentzis so rushes “Destruction’s our delight” that it becomes just a scrambled blur of noise, for some reason he takes “In our deep vaulted cell” at such an absurdly testudinal pace that it grinds ignominiously to a halt. And so it goes: for every frustration there is a welcome surprise, such as the captivating guitar solo interpolated where there would have been a dance just before “Oft she visits”, which is beautifully sung by Sofia Fomina. One moment the listener is baffled by the wilfulness of the meddling, then delighted by revelations such as the final chorus, which is ineffably tender – one of the best ever recorded and just mesmerising.
This is such a hard recording to assess, as for every potentially irritating foible or abnormality there is an imaginative, innovative touch which enlivens the score like no other. For that reason, I suggest that the curious acquire it as a supplement but it cannot be a first choice.
I cannot conceal my bias towards grand, “operatic” interpretations rather than small-scale “period” versions but I have tried not to short change you and have indicated the best of the latter type if your taste that way inclines, even if I do not see how light, small-voiced singers can be preferred to Janet Baker, Josephine Veasey, Jessye Norman, Tatyana Troyanos or Della Jones in the queenly role of Dido. However, I am aware that for some period style is more important and while I cordially detest Andrew Parrott’s two recordings, I have all the time in the world for some other period practitioners and certainly appreciate and enjoy many of the historically informed recordings above, so I also name below several which embrace “authentic” practice – although perhaps the ideal is a compromise between two extremes of grandeur and intimacy, and between depth and spareness of sonority. Whatever performance style is chosen, obviously Purcell cannot be played like Puccini as the orchestration and instrumented indication are of a much smaller, simpler, baroque nature than the Romantic or verismo idioms.
There are half a dozen lemons above but also at least ten highly recommendable versions, from which have selected the best and divided them into somewhat arbitrary groups as per below:
Modern instruments: Leppard 1985*; Davis 1970; Leppard 1977; Lewis 1961; Mackerras 1967
Period instruments: Hickox 1995; Bolton 1989; Pearlman 1996; Steven Devine & Elizabeth Kenny 2008
Wild card: Currentzis 2008
My first choice will not necessarily be yours, which is why I provide so many options.