Prom 58 – Purcell the Perfect

Dido and Aeneas

Dido – Sarah Connolly
Aeneas – Christopher Purves
Belinda – Carolyn Sampson
Sorcerer – D’Arcy Bleiker
Second Woman – Elizabeth Cragg
First Witch – Anna Dennis
Second Witch – Alexandra Gibson
Sailor – Matthew Beale
Spirit – Lucy Crowe

Choir of the Enlightenment
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Richard Egarr (director/harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 2 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

If Prom 51 had shown the danger of multiple-work late-night Proms over-running, Prom 58, with just Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, proved that there are certain works that not only fit supremely well into the late-night slot, but also encourage a massive audience. Compared to Prom 57 in which, after the blockbuster Pittsburgh and Berlin concerts, a Bruckner symphony was coupled with a contemporary (for which read ’unheard of’) violin concerto, the empty seats were legion. (But … Saraste’s Bruckner 5 was certainly not overshadowed by those previous four nights; anything but – Ed.) Not so come 10 o’clock with all but the upper reaches of the Balcony and the Arena full.

It can be arguably claimed that Dido and Aeneas is still the greatest of all British operas, with only Britten’s catalogue offering any real challenge. What is amazing is that Purcell seems to have written the work for a girls’ school (echoes of Vivaldi and his girls’ orphanage here) although, as Lindsay Kemp commented in the programme note, we are not sure that the performance we know happened at the girls’ school was actually the first. Intriguingly, although this led Purcell on to a career of semi-operas, Dido and Aeneas is his only ’full’ opera, and we may not have it in the way he originally conceived it – so, for the record, Richard Egarr and his OAE cohorts performed Clifford Bartlett’s edition, published by King’s Music in 1986.

At just over 70 minutes, this was fuller than some recordings, and included the extraordinary (subtle, if nothing else) “gittar” duos, both at the end of Act One (“A dance gittars chaconny”) and near the start of the second scene in Act Two (“Gittar ground a dance”), for which William Carter and David Miller put down their theorbos and picked up baroque guitars.Given their quietest of volumes, you could literally have heard a pin drop, with the whole audience leaning forward, straining to hear.

Egarr the eager, straddled over his stool onto which he would drop when playing the harpsichord continuo was baton-less, presided over the chorus – arrayed along the back of the string orchestra in one single line – like a beady bird of prey.Additional soloists were handpicked from the chorus, coming forward as needed – or, for the two witches just coming between the choral line and the back of the strings with baritone D’Arcy Bleiker’s youthful and dashing (in a devilish sort of way) Sorcerer – while in the echo chorus at the end of the first scene of Act Two, four members of the chorus turned 180 degrees and sang their echoes to the empty choir stalls; simple but very effective.

Sarah Connolly was supreme as Dido, her Act Three lament taken slowly but all-the-more movingly (again the audience enraptured). Carolyn Sampson as Belinda was also superb, a bright corollary to Dido’s sadness. Christopher Purves made as much as he could of Aeneas’s recitatives in firm and pleasing tone.

Nathan Tate’s rhyming libretto, much lambasted, provides no sticking point in a performance as committed as this, changing original Virgil when needed, so as to include the witches which do not appear in The Aeneid. A treat, then, which will be long-lasting in the mind, not only for the excellence of the performance, but for the perfect placing in its late-night position.

Please, can late-nights only be programmed to last 75 minutes?

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