HENRY PURCELL (1659 – 1695): Dido and Aeneas, Z. 626—Rachael Lloyd (Dido), Robert Davies (Aeneas), Elin Manahan Thomas (Belinda), Roderick Morris (Sorceress), Eloise Irving (Second Woman, First Witch, Spirit), Jenni Harper (Second Witch), Miles Golding (Drunken Sailor); Armonico Consort; Christopher Monks, Musical Director [Recorded in the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London, England, on 20 and 21 October 2014; Signum Classics SIGCD417; 1 CD, 50:45; Available from Signum Classics, ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
In August 1940, as the tide of war swept across Europe and over the English Channel into Britain, Sir Winston Churchill famously rallied his countrymen with unforgettable words of gratitude for the awe-inspiring efforts of the Royal Air Force: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ If the field under consideration were opera in Britain and the entity deemed so few a simple quantity of notes, a related sentiment might justifiably be expressed about Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. Frustratingly, so much of what is ‘known’ about Purcell’s concentrated operatic masterpiece is actually conjecture for which factual substantiation is scant and often subject to individual interpretation. A matter of certainty is that the libretto for Dido and Aeneas is a simplification of Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid undertaken by the Dublin-born eventual Poet Laureate of England, Nahum Tate, who when not occupied with putting figures from Antiquity upon the theatrical and operatic stages was all too happy to tinker with Shakespeare. Precisely where, when, and by whom Dido and Aeneas was first performed cannot be ascertained with any degree of certainty, but the impact of that inauspicious beginning on the development of opera in and beyond the British Isles is indisputable. What is known with relative sureness is that Dido and Aeneas, Purcell’s first opera and only through-composed vocal work for the theatre, had been performed in dancing-master Josias Priest’s school for young ladies at Gorge’s House in Chelsea—one of the most fashionable addresses in Seventeenth-Century suburban London—by July 1688. No manuscript score survives, and the sole authentic Seventeenth-Century source, a printed copy of Tate’s libretto, may or may not have been published in conjunction with the opera’s première, but since the opera’s resurrection for commemorations in 1895 of the bicentennial of the composer’s death, Dido and Aeneas has a place of deserved prominence in the annals of opera in English. A singer as important as Kirsten Flagstad deemed Purcell’s Dido worthy of inclusion in her repertory alongside Wagner’s Elsa, Elisabeth, Brünnhildes, and Isolde, singing the Carthaginian queen in performances in Bernard Miles’s 200-seat Mermaid Theatre in the St. John’s Wood section of London and recording the rôle for HMV. Nancy Evans and Dame Joan Hammond had already recorded Dido before Flagstad’s surprisingly stylish interpretation was committed to vinyl in 1952, ushering in an era of rediscovery that continues to periodically redefine standards of performance of Purcell’s music in the Twenty-First Century. From the revival of interest in Dido and Aeneas in 1895 unto the present day, a progression of accomplished ladies ranging from Britons Dame Janet Baker, Josephine Veasey, Dame Emma Kirkby, and Sarah Connolly to Americans Tatiana Troyanos, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Vivica Genaux have given the ill-fated Dido a legacy as multi-faceted as that of any heroine in opera. Approaching the opera on the scale on which it is likely to have been staged in Purcell’s time, Signum Classics’ studio recording featuring Armonico Consort offers an uncomplicated reading of Dido and Aeneas that serves as a well-timed reminder that, whether an opera was written in 1688 or 1988, the foremost historically-informed, period-appropriate performance practice is sincerity.
Armonico Consort’s Artistic Director Christopher Monks presides from the harpsichord over a performance notable for both its seriousness and the consistency of its musical accents. Purcell was an unsurpassed master of stylistic assimilation, his scores synthesizing aspects of trends from Continental Europe and the British Isles into an unique musical language. In Dido and Aeneas, the influence of John Blow’s roughly contemporaneous opera Venus and Adonis is apparent alongside recognizable traits honed from familiarity with French and Italian models. Hearing this recording not long after witnessing Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona made Dido’s kinship with the Italian composer’s mature operas especially conspicuous. Adhering to the Venetian customs of their time, Busenello’s libretto for Cavalli’s 1641 Didone discarded the tragic demise of Virgil’s account in favor of a lieto fine in which Dido is ‘rescued’—rather chauvinistically, modern observers might be inclined to think—by another suitor’s marriage proposal after Aeneas’s departure, but Purcell’s Dido shares with Cavalli’s Didone an imperturbable dignity that qualifies them as two of operas earliest tragic heroines. Viewing Dido and Aeneas from an anachronistic perspective, Dido is not unlike Bellini’s Norma and Richard Strauss’s Ariadne in being discarded by a ‘foreign’ lover. Just as Pollione’s music in Norma is of a martial character that contrasts with the lunar glow of the music for Norma and her community, Purcell’s music for Aeneas often sounds thorny in comparison with the sensual writing for Dido and her Carthaginian subjects. Monks and the Armonico Consort musicians—first violinist Miles Golding, second violinist Ben Sansom, violist Nichola Blakey, cellist Gabriel Amherst, double bass player Andrew Durban, and theorbist Robin Jeffrey—explore the dramatic significance of this polarity, rejecting the foolish but frequently-indulged temptation to depict Aeneas as an one-dimensional symbolic affront to feminine constancy. Monks’s continuo playing is unobtrusively inventive, and Jeffrey coaxes beguiling sounds from the strings of his instrument. There are many passages in this performance in which the fine playing prompts appreciation of how effective a small ensemble can be in music like Purcell’s: not one bar of the score here sounds undernourished, and the ingenuity and subtle beauty of the music command attention in virtually every phrase.
Following the example of the orchestra, the Armonico Consort chorus employs eight voices, sopranos Jenni Harper and Eloise Irving, altos Sarah Denbee and Roderick Morris, tenors Ruairi Bowen and Guy Simcock, and basses Francis Brett and Michael Hickman. Remembering that the choruses in Händel’s operas, in vogue in London a generation after the creation of Dido Aeneas, were typically sung by the soloists in ensemble, Armonico Consort’s use of a chorus of eight is likely a close approximation of what Purcell expected to hear. As Dido’s countrymen, the choristers sing 'When monarchs unite, how happy their state, they triumph at once o'er their foes and their fate' with optimism, the subjects’ devotion to their queen obvious. Their knowing smiles are seen in the mind’s eye as they suggestively intone 'Cupid only throws the dart that's dreadful to a warrior's heart' and ‘To the hills and the vales, to the rocks and the mountains.’ Assuming more sinister identities, they make the witches’ 'Harm’s our delight and mischief all our skill’ as villainously effective as Scarpia’s ‘Credo’ in Puccini’s Tosca, and their sonorous singing of ‘In our deep vaulted cell the charm we’ll prepare, too dreadful a practice for this open air’ is chilling in its devious intensity. Resuming their Carthaginian guises, the ladies and gentlemen phrase 'Great minds against themselves conspire, and shun the cure they most desire' with woeful inflections. Despite the compact dimensions of the ensemble, their singing of the despondent final chorus, ‘With drooping wings ye Cupids come, and scatter roses on her tomb,’ lends the piece the force of the great choruses of lamentation in Händel’s Israel in Egypt.
The Sydney-born Golding, a veteran of distinguished ensembles of both period and modern instruments, is also heard in this performance as the Drunker Sailor, whose 'Come away, fellow sailors' and 'Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore' he sings raucously in tandem with the chorus. He is unlikely to be invited to sing Rodolfo in La bohème at the Royal Opera House, but his Everyman singing here is mostly inoffensive, largely owing to the brevity of his music. His is hardly the strangest performance of a rôle that has been subjected to some very bizarre concepts.
Emerging from the chorus as the Second Witch, Harper revels in the opportunity to deliver a gem of a line like 'Our plot has took, the Queen's forsook,’ and she takes part in the witches’ cawing, which admittedly quickly outstays its welcome, with every appearance of delight. Her fellow chorister Irving proves a mistress of disguise as the Second Woman, the First Witch, and the deceptive Spirit. She sings the Second Woman's 'Oft she visits this lone mountain, oft she bathes her in this fountain' with girlish freshness, and she later credibly impersonates Mercury’s vexation in the Spirit’s 'Stay, Prince! and hear great Jove's command' and 'Tonight thou must forsake this land.'
Beginning with a memorable performance by Arda Mandikian on the HMV set with Flagstad, the best recorded Sorceresses have imparted that an ugly voice is not necessary to successfully convey the character’s enmity. Entrusting the rôle to a male singer as Purcell might have done has become increasingly preferred in recent years, and Morris, pairing this assignment with his choral duties, is a potent countertenor Sorceress. He spits out 'Wayward sisters, you that fright the lonely traveller by night' with the acrimony of a provoked cobra, and there is no questioning the candor of the sentiment of this Sorceress’s 'The Queen of Carthage, whom we hate, as we do all in prosp'rous state.' The euphoria that sweeps through Morris’s singing of 'See, the flags and streamers curling, anchors weighing, sails unfurling' is nefariously fetching. Always thinking ahead, Morris’s Sorceress rallies her coven with a pointed articulation of 'Our next motion must be to storm her lover on the ocean!' Morris’s soft-grained, pewter-tinged timbre is a suitably ethereal instrument for the Sorceress’s music, but his earthy singing creates a portrait of a creepy character of flesh and blood.
The debonair voice of Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas contributes to one of the finest performances of Belinda’s sweet, sisterly music on records. In Thomas’s singing, Purcell’s idiom seems as natural as everyday conversation. The good-natured communicativeness of her singing of 'Shake the cloud from off your brow, fate your wishes does allow' is endearing: who could ignore her entreaty to allow contentment to prevail? More than meddling inspires Thomas’s Belinda’s utterance of 'Grief increases by concealing,' and the soprano declaims 'Then let me speak; the Trojan guest into your tender thoughts has press'd' with unmistakable innuendo. The open-hearted glee in her singing of 'Fear no danger to ensue, the hero loves as well as you' with the Second Woman and chorus is charming. Thomas’s voice glides over the chorus in 'Thanks to these lonesome vales, these desert hills and dales' and 'Haste, haste to town, this open field no shelter from the storm can yield,’ organically guiding the drama. Many singers seemingly view Belinda as a simple lass to whom Purcell allotted some nice music, but Thomas amplifies the expressivity of this Dido and Aeneas with her portrayal of a Belinda fully worthy of her queen’s confidence.
Colchester native baritone Robert Davies is a refreshingly uncomplicated, masculine Aeneas. There are no pretensions of philosophical depth or self-conscious intellect in this fellow: he is a soldier and adventurer through and through, though one who has the good manners to be at least temporarily unnerved by his betrayal of Dido’s trust. The insinuation with which Davies voices 'When, Royal Fair, shall I be bless'd with cares of love and state distress'd?' is witty, and his emphatic 'Aeneas has no fate but you!' leaves no doubt about the virility of this demigod. Davies voices 'If not for mine, for Empire's sake, some pity on your lover take' with touching emotional directness. He makes the double meaning of 'Behold, upon my bending spear a monster's head stands bleeding' as plain as Wagner’s incessant extolling of Siegfried’s testosteronic sword. A vein of dismay courses through Davies’s phrasing of 'Jove's commands shall be obey'd, tonight our anchors shall be weighed,' and the tenderness limned in his 'But ah! what language can I try my injur'd Queen to pacify' is unexpectedly touching. A crucial component of the success of Davies’s performance is his refusal to pursue stylishness by altering his basic method of vocal production. He sings Purcell’s music without affectation, and his rugged, attractive tone molds an Aeneas who more than usually deserves his half of the opera’s title billing.
From her opening statement of 'Ah! Belinda, I am press'd with torment not to be Confess'd' to the last note of the celebrated lament, mezzo-soprano Rachael Lloyd is a Dido whose inexorable trajectory towards tragedy is enacted with honesty and thoughtfully-shaded tone. Lloyd pronounces 'Whence could so much virtue spring?' with the disbelief of a woman whose injured heart is reluctant to admit affection. That Dido’s happiness is destined to be short-lived in no way reduces its potency, and Lloyd’s cry of 'Your counsel all is urged in vain; to earth and heav'n I will complain!' tenably expresses the character’s doubt and fear. Dido’s doubts and fears ultimately prove justified, of course, and Lloyd unlooses avalanches of fury in 'Thus on the fatal banks of Nile, weeps the deceitful crocodile' and 'No, faithless man, thy course pursue; I'm now resolv'd as well as you.' Dido’s longing for death can seem immoderate, even reckless, but Lloyd shapes the queen’s expiry as an act of defiance, in effect defying the stasis imposed upon the character by Tate’s libretto. She sings 'To Death I'll fly if longer you delay' and 'But Death, alas! I cannot shun; Death must come when he is gone' without exaggeration, and she voices 'Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me' with determination rather than despair. Her performance of the imposing lament, 'When I am laid in earth,' reverberates with relief and singularity of purpose, her solid top Gs hurled like clenched fists at the unjust gods. Lloyd develops Dido’s death as a sort of Baroque Liebestod: it resolves but does not define her characterization. Like Davies’s Aeneas, Lloyd’s Dido is not an act of posing and posturing. She is not an ostentatiously glamorous queen, but she is all the more moving for being a flawed, nobly human one.
In this performance, shorn of artifice and psychological baggage that has more to do with Proust than with Purcell, the distance between Dido and Aeneas and the vocal music of contemporary British composers like Thomas Adès, Jonathan Dove, and Joseph Phibbs seems very small. This is neither because Purcell was in some exceptional way sophisticated beyond his contemporaries nor because today’s most gifted composers are old-fashioned: the proximity is explained by the manner in which Purcell perfected the art of uniting English words and music. Assessed solely as a recital of Purcell’s vocal lines, this is a very good but not a great Dido and Aeneas, but it exudes an intelligibility missing from many performances. A vital part of the success of this recording is its confirmation of the reality that Dido and Aeneas constitutes fifty of the most momentous minutes in the history of opera.