Music Reviews

Pentatone – ‘Purcell: Dido & Aeneas’

“The only perfect English opera”, says Lindsay Kemp in the foreword to this issue, and artistic director David Bates elaborates this statement further: “…its strongest suit is its sense of theatre. By that I essentially mean contrast, the juxtaposition of differing moods, colours, orchestrations, songs. It constantly shifts from one thing to another in the most concise way you could possibly imagine, far more so than the most well-developed, well-furnished opera with convoluted libretto by Lully lasting a whole evening. In Dido everything’s boiled down to what is absolutely the most intense and colourful, thanks to the brevity of the piece, but also to this juxtaposition of theatrical conceits.”

Artistic director and organist David Bates. (Photo taken from booklet)

It is very easy to agree. In less than one hour, this mighty three-act-tragedy is over, and everything falls into place- and besides the drama the music is constantly illuminating, up to the concluding Dido’s lament. Large portions of the score dance, more so here than in any other recording I know. Let me immediately confess that I have heard only a fraction of the existing versions, but this is special with its amended orchestration, including an added percussion department that makes the music swing in a way that is quite overwhelming. Besides that, there are some spectacular sound effects. The fireworks concluding the first act are stunners. This is late 17th century baroque transported to the 21st century. The playing and singing of La Nuova Musica is absolutely absorbing – but of course there are many other recordings that are in the same league. A favourite for a number of years has been Trevor Pinnock’s Archiv recording from 1988, and Raymond Leppard’s Philips recording from a couple of years earlier with Jessye Norman as Dido. Both are still top-ranking on my personal list, but for sheer voluptuousness and up-to-date-ness the present issue is a strong challenger. 

Performance photography Chris Christodoulou 

The singing is also in many ways devoid of fustiness and refreshing. The real star is Avery Amereau’s Sorceress – intensely dramatic and frightening, slightly parodic but never over-the-top. This venom-spitting figure is far superior to Pinnock’s Nigel Rogers, who is uncharacteristically bland.

‘Sorceress’ Avery Amereau, alto 

Fleur Barron’s Dido is also a well-delineated portrait of a suffering queen, and the final lament is deeply touching – but there she is up against stiff competition from Pinnock’s classically noble Anne Sofie von Otter and Leppard’s grand but likewise sensitive Jessye Norman’s heroine in the Flagstad mould. Both are superb in their own way, even though they are worlds apart. The rest of the present cast – of which I knew none, apart from the ubiquitous Nicky Spence’s Sailor – is fully up to the mark.

That said, no one can quite challenge Lynne Dawson’s delightful Belinda on the Pinnock set and Sir Thomas Allen’s Aeneas for Leppard. As I said above, I am familiar with only a limited number of recordings of this opera, which no doubt is the most recorded baroque opera. When my colleague Ralph Moore made his survey he picked thirty, but there are many more available, and through industrious searching anyone can find her/his favourite. Ralph’s choice was Leppard with Jessye Norman, and for average listeners who are not HIP enthusiasts that is a safe buy. Those who are more adventurous should give the present issue a try. It is a studio recording, set down in a London church with excellent acoustics, but it seems from an illustration in the booklet that it was also performed on stage, possibly concertante. At least there were dancers in sailor suits present, and that may explain why the performance has such a strong feeling of unity and a sense of ensemble which can be achieved only through live performances. 

This is a colourful and dramatic performance of “The only perfect English opera” – with a modern twist.

Written by Göran Forsling for MusicWeb International
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