OAE Dido and Aeneas

Dioclesian – Masque from Act 5
Dido and Aeneas [Concert Performance]

Dido – Alice Coote
Aeneas – Christopher Maltman
Belinda – Carolyn Sampson
Second Woman – Lucy Crowe
Sorcerer – Giles Underwood
Spirit – Elizabeth Atherton
First Witch – Caroline Dobbin
Second Witch – Iestyn Davies
Sailor – Andrew Tortise
Malcolm Bennett

Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Richard Egarr (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 2 April, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This concert turned out to be real edge-of-seat stuff, owing less to narrative content (which in the masque is non-existent and in the opera too condensed) than to the energy and imagination of Richard Egarr. Like a commander whose conception of the battle’s outcome is so precise that he can afford to take huge risks, Egarr threw himself into the midst of the action, urging his musicians on with confident gestures and fiery continuo playing. Even the moments of repose were charged with anticipation – you knew the troops were merely regrouping before another assault.

The masque from “Dioclesian” is an example of Purcell’s ability to write attractive and entertaining, though technically brilliant, music as a component of a larger work in which much of the dialogue is spoken (the preference in England at the time). The bawdy world of drink and sex, tempered by tender feelings and moral observations, is rendered poetically by the usual classical conventions, Egarr’s interpretation in turn conjuring up Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” in its use of bright colours and strong contrasts. Throughout, the procession of airs, duets, trios and choruses were a constant delight, one of the high points being the arrival of Bacchus himself (Christopher Maltman) with his merry crew (Giles Underwood and Andrew Tortise).

Dido and Aeneas, written ten years before “Dioclesian”, is today so firmly entrenched in the repertoire that each successive generation of performers feels the need to gloss the work with either the latest musicological research or their own interpretive insights. This astonishing performance was no exception. The role of the Sorceress was sung by a baritone (Sorcerer, then!), which worked well, Giles Underwood (ably assisted by witches Caroline Dobbin and Iestyn Davies) giving a fabulously wicked comic turn. Continuo player William Carter provided two magical interludes in the form of Francesco Corbetta’s music for solo baroque guitar – amazingly audible even when played pianissimo, and serving to cleanse the palate between courses so to speak. In the sorcerer’s cave, the echo effect of the chorus was achieved by having some members of the choir turning their backs to the audience; the end of the scene was marked by a huge cacophony of babbling voices and orchestral mayhem. The First Sailor’s solo was sung in a deliberately drunken fashion to such an extent that the melodic line was obliterated; this perhaps didn’t work so well, Andrew Tortise’s relative inexperience showing. William Carter’s theorbo provided the only accompaniment to Dido’s valedictory recitative before the famous final air, in the best tradition of matching the instrumentation to the affect. This too was a good decision, throwing the orchestral accompaniment of the “When I am laid to earth” into sharp relief, just as the solo guitar music did the chorus in Act One.

Of the vocal soloists, Christopher Maltman and Carolyn Sampson stood out, both for the quality of their voices and their interpretative ability. Alice Coote was disappointing, her powerful, firmly centred voice proving slightly unattractive in this context and stylistically incongruous. The orchestra and chorus were beyond reproach, delivering crisp, clear responses to Egarr’s direction – which as I intimated earlier was superb.

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