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Purcell Dido NBD0140V
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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]

Deborah Warner’s production of Dido and Aeneas has taken a long time to reach us. It was filmed in December 2008 at the Opéra Comique in Paris, and the production was much admired when it was new. It has by and large been worth the wait. Chloe Obolensky’s single set is effective, a rear wall suggesting an imposing façade, perhaps of Purcell’s own period, with a shiny bead curtain, with links of chain, before it. The height of the stage is deployed well, as when sailors descend from the flies to prepare Aeneas’s ship for departure.

Costumes are period (Purcell’s period, not that of ancient Carthage) for the main characters, with contemporary street clothes for most others. Dido has a most regal elaborate robe, in yellow and pale gold. The sorceress and her witches wear black of course. It is effectively, sometimes dramatically, lit by Jean Kalman and intelligently filmed by François Roussillon, with only a few of those close-ups which show what facial contortions can be needed in operatic singing.

An interesting extra, or extras, is a group of young girls in modern school uniforms. This is a reference, presumably, to the fact that the opera was first performed for a girl’s school. They are seen in their locker room before curtain up, and are a lively presence at times, charming in the act one triumphing dance and the act three sailors’ dance, but scream and flee whenever the Sorceress appears. That is just as well, as the direction of the witches is restricted to the familiar tropes of pantomime villains (clawed hands etc.). Hilary Summers’s Sorceress is a bit over the top in this respect. On entry she has red headgear with devil’s horns, in case the fleeing children were insufficient to tell us this is a sorceress. Summers sings her part well though.

Indeed the musical side of things is a real strength here. Christopher’s Maltman’s Aeneas is firm of voice, although his character is not so firm of purpose and the baritone does not try to make him more sympathetic than the tale justifies. He gets this just right in his stage manner, and sings as well as anyone has in the role I think.

Dido is Swedish mezzo-soprano Malena Ernman, who a year after this film was made was singing in the final of the Eurovision Song Contest, though her daughter Greta Thunberg was still unknown to the world. Ernman is excellent in this moving role, which is so central to the success of any production. From her first confession to Belinda that she is “pressed with torment” through to her “When I am laid in earth” and poignant cries of “Remember me” she combines pathos with queenly dignity, except in her rage at Aeneas’s announcement of his departure. The whole scene of Dido’s lament can rarely have been staged, directed and sung so well live.

The other roles are all well taken, the Belinda of Judith van Wanroij being especially attractive vocally and in stage deportment. The choral work is good, the fine instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants make an appealing period sound, and the direction of William Christie has his customary authority in such repertoire. Warner’s direction is sure-footed and unfussy, and the stage business she invents to go with the dance music moments is always plausible.

Unusually she keeps the idea of a Prologue, although not Nahum Tate’s text for which Purcell’s music is lost. Instead she has actress Fiona Shaw recite (and perform) three poems by Ted Hughes, T.S.Eliot and W.B.Yeats. Each has some resonance with Dido’s tragedy such as the last line of the Yeats; “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” This Prologue plays for just under seven minutes, and the very full tracking of the whole disc allows it easily to be curtailed (there is track for each poem) or omitted. There are no extras, although interviews with Christie and Warner would have been very welcome, especially on such a short disc. The Blu-ray picture and 5.1 surround sound are both very good

The Royal Opera’s film of Dido and Aeneas, with Sarah Connolly’s Dido and Lucy Crowe’s Belinda both superb, has Hogwood conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and uses dancers from The Royal Ballet. That Opus Arte Blu-ray and DVD is also worth considering still (it was filmed the year after this version from Les Arts Florissants). But ultimately I found the intimate scale and staging of this Naxos account more interesting and Ernman’s performance even more moving, so this is certainly my recommended version now.

Roy Westbrook

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