Simply put, Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was England's greatest composer -- a fairly ironclad proposition that would brook no argument at all if he had lived longer than his thirty-six years. The evidence for his genius was sonically laid out for us by Robert King in his multi-disc survey of Purcell's vocal works on Hyperion during the 1990s. No other baroque composer, not even Bach, had his capacity to spin out, seemingly effortlessly, melodies of jewel-like beauty.
This talent is constantly on display in Dido and Aeneas, his only full opera and certainly his best-known work. He may have written it for performance at the English court in 1693 or 94; but its first verifiable performance was in 1689 at a Chelsea girls' school whose proprietor (and dancing master) presumably wanted to showcase his charges' vocal and terpsichorean accomplishments to their parents on Talent Night. Blessedly brief, streamlined in plot, spiced by witches and jigging sailors, and full of Purcell's genius for melody, it's a good opera for people who don't quite like opera--and also for people who really, really do. Drawn from an episode in Virgil's epic poem, it's about Dido, Queen of Carthage, who falls in love with Prince Aeneas, lately of the vanquished Troy, who is on R&R at Carthage on his way to found Rome. When a gang of witches decides to undo the lovers purely out of spite ("Harm's our delight and mischief all our skill," they sing), their fate is sealed. Aeneas abandons Dido and sails for Rome; heartbroken, Dido kills herself.
There are pleasures everywhere you listen in this recording. The overture, when it reaches its allegro, burns at breakneck speed, played with total control by Le Concert d'Astrée, the early instrument group founded and directed by Emmanuelle Haïm. She maintains the fast pace throughout the performance; at 53 minutes, this must be the fastest D&A on record. These tempos impart tremendous energy to the opera and are consistent with the furious passions that soak the story. For Dido's death scene at the end of Act III, Haïm creates a wonderfully dramatic effect by radically slowing the tempo, as if the emotionally exhausted Dido has no more passion to give. It's a perfect demonstration of Haïm's global conception of the opera. Dido and Aeneas is usually performed by a large string ensemble, but here Haïm discreetly doubles some of the parts with oboes, a bassoon, and in the Witches' Dance in Act II, a recorder. The continuo makes heavy use of the theorbo, whose strummed accompaniment reinforces Haïm's energetic tempos. By emphasizing downbeats -- as in the heavy accents in the guitar ground dance (Act II, Scene ii) -- Haïm reminds us how important dancing was in early opera -- and why that Chelsea dancing master may have been interested in staging Dido and Aeneas to begin with.
There is not a weak voice or a miscalculated performance anywhere on this disc. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sings Dido with total passion and understanding. Listen to the anxiety in her voice in her first aria, "Ah Belinda, I am pressed with torment," or her pique when she impulsively spurns Aeneas in Act III ("Thus on the fatal banks of Nile"). The opera's most famous aria and the touchstone for a successful Dido is her final lament, "When I am laid in earth." Janet Baker set the benchmark so high for it in her renowned 1962 performance (London) that no one has ever rivaled it. But listening to them side by side, I would argue that Graham, who sings with heartbreaking pathos, has finally surpassed her.
Apparently Ian Bostridge has been cloned, for lately he shows up on every interesting disc that calls for a tenor. I'm not complaining; his voice is rich and warm, never sounding strained. His ability to convey the meaning behind the words he sings displays the intelligence of someone who also holds a doctorate in history from Oxford. Here he brings just the right balance of swagger and lovesickness to his interpretation of Aeneas, doomed to be both a hero and a lover. You can hear his bluster collapse when he tries to say farewell to Dido in Act III ("In spite of Jove's command, I'll stay").
The Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling sings the part of Dido's handmaid, Belinda. I know her from her beautiful singing in the last movement of Mahler's Fourth in Benjamin Zander's recent recording with the Philharmonia (Telarc), which stands out for me as one of the very best accounts of this challenging part. She is equally up to the role of Belinda, singing with a pure, clear tone that is a delight with every word she sings. Belinda is the eternal optimist of the piece, never grasping how inevitable is the lovers' collision course with fate. Tilling's vocalism always catches this naiveté.
The splendid countertenor David Daniels makes the most fleeting appearance here as the Spirit who deceives Aeneas: he sings for just 45 seconds! But it is always a treat to hear the full-bodied soprano tones he can produce. Felicity Palmer never overacts as the Sorceress (a fault that spoils Monica Sinclair's performance in Janet Baker's version). Haïm coaxes a full sound from the fourteen-member European Voices, who sing their choruses with verve and great balance -- for example, in Act I's "Fear no danger to ensue."
The recording is beautifully engineered, with a spacious sense of the stage, excellent separation of the various voices, and crystal-clear articulation from the softest passages to the blasting "thunder and lightning" and demonic hoopla at the end of Act II, Scene ii.
A protégé of early music maestro William Christie, Emmanuelle Haïm has lately been popping up on covers and in articles in all sorts of music magazines. The virtuoso performances she gets from everyone involved in this recording demonstrate that this notice is by no means misplaced celebrity. She has given us an unsurpassed Dido and Aeneas.