Opera Review: “Dido and Aeneas” — A Memorable Evening of Purcell
By Susan Miron
Handel and Haydn Society assembled both a must-hear program and an extraordinary cast of singers.
For fans of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Handel and Haydn Society presented a concert of non-stop pleasures on Friday night at Jordan Hall, culminating with his beloved opera, Dido and Aeneas. Music Director Harry Christophers, who considers Purcell (which he pronounced with the accent on the second syllable), the greatest-ever British composer, assembled both a must-hear program and an extraordinary cast of singers for this occasion. Clearly the powers that be at H + H anticipated a considerable success because they slipped in a round trip bus trip to NYC for the players and singers on Saturday evening (before their Sunday afternoon concert in Boston), where they appeared at the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur.
Purcell is considered one of the first great melodists. He avoided the rote formulas of the Baroque, often embracing a wrenching chromaticism and lyricism. He reconciled the old and new on its own inimitable terms; he was particularly successful at setting English words to music. Hailed as Britain‘s greatest Baroque composer, it’s surprising that Dido and Aeneas was Purcell’s only official opera. During the ten years that followed the composition of Dido and Aeneas, he wrote five other ‘semi-operas,’ the most famous being King Arthur in 1691, The Fairy-Queen in 1692, and The Indian Queen, 1695.
A year ago, Purcell scholar Ellen Harris wrote a fascinating piece in the New York Times, admitting that thirty years after she had written a book on this opera, its history “has only grown richer as we have discovered how little we actually know.” Accepted ‘facts’ about Dido and Aeneas’s history have repeatedly been proved incorrect. And performances widely admired a generation ago by Dame Janet Baker and Jessye Norman are now considered old fashioned by many. (Listen to these versions on You Tube anyway.) British conductor Raymond Leppard spoke cleverly about the brevity of Dido and Aeneas: ”It’s like Tristan und Isolde in a pint pot. Everything lasts no time at all, but in 20 bars you’ve accomplished more than the Tristan experience, or Isolde in her ‘Liebestod.’ More variety and quite as intense.” Based on book IV of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, Dido and Aeneas may have been his first and only all-sung work, written around 1685, or perhaps even earlier. Nahum Tate wrote the libretto; the opera was first performed in 1689.
Purcell’s instrumental Chacony in G Minor (1678) opened the H & H program. (There were no winds or brass. The orchestra included 2 harpsichords/organ, theorbo and Baroque guitar, and three each of violins I and II, violas, and cello.) Benjamin Britten helped popularize this work via his arrangement for string quartet. A set of three brief pieces followed. “A New Irish Tune” and “A New Scotch Tune” featured heavy ornamentation on the harpsichord; they sandwiched the moving aria “O solitude,” which was sung by the wonderful countertenor Reginald Mobley, accompanied by cellist Guy Fishman and theorbo player Paula Chateauneuf. This moving, melismatic song was, along with “Dido’s Lament,” one of evening’s high points; the audience all but exploded with applause. Others wept openly.
Six stellar singers: Margot Rood and Sonja DuToit Tengblad, sopranos; Reginald Mobley, countertenor; Jonas Budris and Stefan Reed, tenors; and Peter Walker, baritone (all re-appear in Dido and Aeneas) took part in the boisterous Ode to St. Cecilia 1683, “Welcome to all the pleasures.” The singers were elegantly accompanied by theorbo and plucked cello. (Chateuaneuf and Fishman).
Aidan Lang, director of the staging enhancements, explained in a Boston Musical Intelligencer interview that the opera “will be presented in contemporary clothes. One of the reasons I prefer to do these enhanced concerts in modern dress is due to the presence of the orchestra on stage. While they are not part of the action per se, they are nevertheless always in sight for the audience. If we used any form of period costume, it would create a visual clash. Costuming requires a surrounding scenic picture as a context; without that context, we would run the danger of the singers looking like they have simply turned up in fancy dress.” By my count there were three sets of costume change — including overcoats, men were dressed in black pants and white undershirts or shirts for the “Sailor’s Dance,” women were initially in dresses and men in sports coats. In one scene, the males wore hoodies and caps (one wore a red plaid blanket). Aeneas sported coral colored slacks and, for a brief spell, both he and Dido donned sunglasses. The lighting shifted from aqua to green to red. None of this appealed much to me, but the orchestra and singers were so excellent I tried not to notice the unnecessary modern touches.
I was familiar with all the singers of Dido, except for the mighty mezzo Susan Bickley, who was vocally captivating in the starring role of Dido, Queen of Carthage. At the evening’s end the character pours out her heart in one of opera’s most heartbreaking arias, “When I am laid,” which is set to wrenching chromaticism. David McFerrin acted and sang Aeneas, the Prince of Troy, with aplomb. The two witches, Sarah Brailey and Margot Rood, sang terrifically together; they seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. The chorus was generally thrilling throughout. Belinda, Dido’s sister, was sung sweetly but, for my taste, a little too quietly, by Sarah Yanovitch. Bass-baritone Matthew Brook, cast as both the sailor and sorceress, provided both comic relief and some beautiful singing. The superb soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad, in a beige pencil shirt, was 2nd woman. Paula Chateauneuf’s Baroque guitar solos were a delight. Vocalizing from the balcony, countertenor Reginald Mobley made for a dramatic, beautifully voiced Spirit.
But the show, rightfully, belonged to Dido, and Bickley was shattering in her sorrow, right from the moment near the end when the chorus sings “Great minds against themselves conspire. And shun the cure they most desire.” Dido tells her sister Belinda, “Death is now a welcome guest,” and launches dolefully into her famous “When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast; Remember me but forget my fate!” Bickley covered her face with a gauzy black scarf and walked slowly off stage, making the other singers look like stricken mourners. The image was an appropriately memorable homage to Purcell’s sublimely beautiful, and moving, music.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.