Three performances of “Dido and Aeneas” were recorded live by HMV at Bernard Miles’s Mermaid Theatre in 1951, none being successful. One performance was broadcast and has been issued on CD by Walhall (WLCD 0186). When HMV undertook a studio recording, the cast was much changed. Kirsten Flagstad and Thomas Hemsley remained in the title-roles. Arda Mandikian was promoted from First Witch to Sorceress, but most noteworthy was the engagement of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the producer Walter Legge’s wife, as Belinda, Second Woman and the Spirit.
The duet 'Fear no danger' is usually listed as for Belinda and Second Woman (with no First Woman in the cast-list). At the Mermaid, First Woman and Second Woman were included, meaning that Belinda (Maggie Teyte) did not sing in that duet. Eilidh McNab was First Woman and is listed as such for HMV, but the duet, remember, is supposed to be for Belinda and Second Woman, both taken by Schwarzkopf, and I am sure that she duets with herself, leaving the announced McNab redundant, for nothing remains for her to sing.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whom the authors considered “a stylistic intruder”. In his chapter on “Dido and Aeneas” in “Opera on Record”, Volume 2, Graham Sheffield thought Schwarzkopf sounded “as though she is singing lieder by Hugo Wolf”. One notes the objections and registers them, hearing what caused them. Nevertheless, I cannot say that Schwarzkopf spoilt the set for me, as Peter Pears does the Decca version with Janet Baker or many of the cast do, particularly the Aeneas, in Andrew Parrott’s recording: for me, the worst ever.
Certainly Schwarzkopf would not be among my choices as Belinda, but nor would Hemsley be one of my recommendations as Aeneas. He sings cleanly, enunciates well, yet sounds too gentlemanly: English-polite, to coin a phrase. Let me stress that neither of them is a stumbling-block for me. Sheila Rex is a strong First Witch, Anna Pollak a shade cackly in her very small assignment as Second Witch. David Lloyd, in his final EMI recording, has only 50 seconds or so as the Sailor but is all right apart from a grey bottom note and an uneasy top one: not the best of a tenor who was elegant and sensitive at his peak.
That leaves the best for last, as they say. Arda Mandikian, a Greek mezzo who recorded Berlioz’s Dido for Ducretet-Thomson, is here the Carthaginian queen’s enemy, singing the Sorceress in excellent English. Fortunately, she does not treat the role as that of a pantomime villainess, which that usually fine artist Monica Sinclair did on the Janet Baker L’Oiseau-Lyre disc. Mandikian, though, relies on giving her voice enough variety of shading together with a slight edge, cutting but not abrasive or ear-piercing.
The other winning performance is that of Flagstad. Laying aside Wagnerian volume, she slims down her voice without losing its distinctive basic sound, even producing some lovely pointed top notes that touch the mark almost delicately. Points exist for which I do not care, such as some downward portamentos and occasional approaches from just below the note, but hers is not a romantic reading. Rather it is dignified, with a genuine attempt at the style, and even at sub-Brünnhilde fullness the voice retains its quality.
The Mermaid Singers are enthusiastic and do well enough if not perfectly honed. EMI’s registers suggest that the orchestra was formed of members of the Philharmonia. Geraint Jones, who also recorded as an organist and harpsichordist, knows the style of the period and presents a lively reading. This was HMV’s second recording of the opera, the first, from 1945, having included Joan Hammond as Dido. It has been reissued on Opera d’Or OPD 1220, but I cannot vouch for its availability. The Decca set of 1935, with the 20-year-old Nancy Evans, has never been transferred, nor have I heard it but should like to if only for the Sorceress of Mary Jarred, a fine but insufficiently recorded contralto.
The Naxos CD contains three Flagstad 78s as bonuses, already available on a Testament disc. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer is clean; Malcolm Walker’s notes interesting and informative.