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Purcell Dido 2110709
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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas, Z. 626, opera in prologue and three acts to a libretto by Nahum Tate (1689)
Dido - Malena Ernman (mezzo-soprano)
Aeneas - Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Belinda - Judith van Wanroij (soprano)
Sorceress - Hilary Summers (contralto)
Second Woman - Lina Markeby (contralto)
First Witch - Céline Ricci (soprano)
Second Witch - Ana Quintans (soprano)
Spirit - Marc Mauillon (tenor, baritone)
Sailor - Damian Whiteley (bass)
Prologue - Fiona Shaw (voice)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie (harpsichord, organ)
Deborah Warner - stage director
Chloe Obolensky - set and costume designer
Jean Kalman - lighting designer
Recorded at the Opéra Comique, Paris, France, 7 and 9 December 2008
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Audio language: English
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean
NAXOS 2.110709 DVD [66 mins]

The production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas staged by the Opéra Comique, Paris, in December 2008 received wide approval. The simple, rich, brown-toned set consisted of a Palladian-style skene at the back of a stage veiled with beads, a large raised dais centre-stage and benches like those in a school gymnasium.

In fact the flavour of this performance is set early on, when schoolgirls in modern dress swarm on and off the stage. They continue to do so (sometimes screaming) throughout - presumably to remind the audience that Dido and Aeneas was (first?) performed in 1689 at Josias Priest's girls' school in Chelsea.
This would not be the first choice of many lovers of one of Purcell’s most enduring and profound works. The staging and acting are at times somewhat arch and self-conscious. Because Purcell’s Prologue is lost, stage director Deborah Warner decided to transplant poems by Eliot, Yeats and Ted Hughes Ovid translations. These are spoken by Fiona Shaw - indeed somewhat overacted - in ‘modern dress’ (jeans and a tatty bustier). The intention must have been to evoke the wayward rawness of late 17th century London and its bawdy, at best ‘spirited’, theatre. One of the witches (who are more mischievous than malicious) smokes, and sailors ‘moon’ other performers.

Some of this seems designed to ‘warm’ up an audience because it was presumed that they would be unfamiliar with late Restoration London conventions. But it jars with Purcell’s treatment of despair and - conceivably - deceit.

However, the singing is distinguished and touching. Maltman’s Aeneas is direct and convincing. Ernman’s Dido is fluid, true and not over-strained. Similarly, the singing and playing of Les Arts Florissants are appropriately trenchant while being warm and colourful. Yet at times their style is more saucy and playful than tragic. This is surely because Warner’s direction was aiming for a Restoration episode rather than an interlude in a Roman or Virgilian epic.

Mannerism and a mixture of low-key emblems (like the accoutrements of the lovers’ food at their hunting party and the knots and huge sails on the departing Aeneas’s ship), lewd gestures to suggest animosity between the parties in the witches’ and sailors’ dances [tr.s 19-21] with 21st century facial expressions like Maltman’s gestures of “OK, I’ll stay then” [tr.22] make it tricky really to locate oneself: is this London’s relief after the events of the Glorious Revolution of the year before; or are we to see past the stage business to Purcell’s exploration of betrayal?

There is no doubt that the performers have wistfulness and reflection to offer: during the opera’s most famous aria, ‘When I am laid’, for example. And the production is the better for it. At last: the three principals left on the stage at the end of the performance have achieved some gravitas.

The camerawork is persuasive: closeups are unobtrusive when they are needed. The wider shots never lack presence and a sense of ensemble amongst all the participants is achieved… as if they are good chums offstage.

Yes, everyone is there to sing Purcell’s only opera. But they are being asked to immerse themselves in a production which suffers from failing to decide whether it is aiming for Restoration ‘spirit’ or a more nuanced insight into Purcell’s perception of this decisive episode in the Aeneid as interpreted by Nahum Tate. After all, he was poet Laureate and had adapted Shakespeare.
The acoustic is clear and - as recorded on the (all region) DVD - an accurate reflection of that of the theatre, though balanced in the singers favour over the instrumentalists. The DVD comes with a slim booklet in English and French which contains brief context of (the composition of) Dido and Aeneas, track lists, performers’ details and synopses of the works’s three acts - although, as usual, it is sung continuously.
Mark Sealey

Previous review (Blu-ray): Roy Westbrook

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