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Purcell Dido 2110709
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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas, Opera in a prologue and three acts
Dido - Malena Ernman
Aeneas - Christopher Maltman
Belinda - Judith Van Wanroij
Sorceress - Hilary Summers
Second Woman - Lina Markeby
First Witch - Celine Ricci
Second Witch - Ana Quintans
Spirit - Marc Mauillon
Sailor - Damian Whiteley
Prologue - Fiona Shaw
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie (harpsichord and organ)
Stage Director - Deborah Warner; Sets and Costumes - Chloe Obolensky; Lighting - Jean Kalman; Film Director – François Roussillon
rec. 7 & 9 December 2008 at the Opéra Comique, Paris
Picture HD 16:9; Sound PCM Stereo and DTS Master Audio 5.1. Region A, B, C. Sung in English; Subtitles English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean
Reviewed in surround sound
NAXOS NBD0140V Blu-ray [66 mins]

Dido and Aeneas is one of the first English operas, the most popular among those written before the 20th century. Stage director Deborah Warner will have known that musically this production was in the safest hands possible. William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants and a very fine cast guaranteed a musical success. So how could she mark the production out as theatre? Apperently, the work was first performed at Josias Priest’s girls’ boarding school in Chelsea, London. Neither that nor the composition date are certain, so Warner could well go with this story. It is logical, then, that we first see many young French girls in school uniform preparing for the performance. This is far from supernumerary: as the opera proceeds, they keep appearing, they sing, dance and even scream. There are witches, remember!

Warner also capitalises on the missing music for the prologue. The first surviving published score postdates that first performance by several decades. Purcell’s music for this substantial stretch of preparatory libretto, with songs and dances, vanished. The musical performance normally starts with Act 1. Not to be put off by tradition, this production has a full prologue, performed by actress Fiona Shaw. The text is, perhaps wisely, not Nahum Tate’s tale of gods, goddesses, shepherds and shepherdesses. It is drawn from Ted Hughes’s Echo and Narcissus, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Eliot’s The Waste Land and W. B. Yeats’s The Wind Among the Reeds. This radical idea works well. It successfully prepares the ground for the main opera, hinting at matters of love and loss. The chorus are joined on stage by a handful of acrobats to create several busy scenes, among them a departing ship. All this adds about fifteen very relevant minutes to an otherwise very short opera. For me, it was wholly convincing.

The singing cast all deserve plaudits. Even the two witches in attendance on the Sorceress are marvellously depicted. They hold their own against the splendidly flamboyant Hilary Summers’s Sorceress. Belinda and the anonymous Second Woman are finely sung and acted. Lina Markeby’s Second Woman – who, like Casandra, seems to know from the start that the lovers are doomed – remains on stage at the very end, and puts in a simply heart-breaking performance as she weeps over Dido’s body. Aeneas is the magnificent Christopher Maltman. Malena Ernman’s Dido is quite wonderful, both singing and acting. She is every inch the betrayed queen. Vocally she holds her own against all the famous singers I have heard in this role, even challenging the great Victoria de Los Angeles in Barbirolli’s 1966 recording.

This Dido and Aeneas, recorded in 2008, appears to have been available on DVD for some time. This is a newly released HD version. The sound and filming are a credit to the engineers of Radio France and to director François Roussillon. Agnès Terrier’s booklet essay is required reading: it covers the latest ideas about the music and the history of the work. She alerted me to the influence of John Blow’s earlier work Venus and Adonis (the very first English opera) and to the other operatic uses of this story by Cavalli and Graupner. She also mentions the fact that Metastasio’s slightly later libretto Didone abbandonata spawned more than seventy operas in the following century! There is a lot to investigate in the world of Baroque opera.

Dave Billinge

Previous reviews: Roy Westbrook (Blu-ray) ~ Mark Sealey (DVD)

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