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Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
07 Feb 2007

PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas

This disc is a reissue of a 1993 recording made at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, California, but new to me.

Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Lisa Saffer, Donna Deam, Ellen Rabiner, Cristine Brandes, Ruth Rainero, Paul Elliott, Michael Dean, Nicholas McGegan (dir.).

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907110 [CD]

$18.99  Click to buy

Until now my favorite reading of this important, and more to the point, captivating work, had been that led by René Jacobs, also for Harmonia Mundi (recorded 1998), with the same choir, but different soloists and band. Here the conductor (and one of the vocalists) is English, but the band and the other soloists are all American.

I must confess that for me, what is most attractive about the work is not the framing tragedy of the abandoned Dido, or the conflict of the noble Aeneas, but the spirited and characteristic music for the minor characters, and the rousing choruses, which is where Purcell really shines. The English stage generally left the leading figures of the drama as speaking roles, and so most of Purcell's theatre music is for secondary roles heightened by song. McGegan's tempos are fleet (always quicker than those of Jacobs — the whole opera comes in at almost ten minutes less), but they are lively, never rushed.

The singers are of uniformly high quality, well-matched to their roles, and the diction seems natural to my ears, neither artificially RP (Received Pronunciation) nor obviously American. Lorraine Hunt is richly emotional as the Queen, and Michael Dean makes a manly and heroic impression with his warm baritone. Lisa Saffer is an attractive and sympathetic Belinda.

The only misfire is Ellen Rabiner as the Sorceress, with a fruity, over-vibrated sound more appropriate for Katisha. Jacobs’ Sorceress, Susan Bickley, in contrast, is truly threatening, delivering her menacing lines with razor-sharp diction and a laser-beam tone that makes her the most memorable figure on the CD. On the other hand, the two witches here (Christine Brandes and Ruth Rainero) are far superior to the campy countertenors on the Jacobs disc. The only Englishman in the cast, Paul Elliott, delivers his Sailor’s song (sailors have always had a woman in every port) with a delicious regional accent (which?). I would be remiss if I did not mention the excellent playing by the Philarmonia under McGegan’s baton.

All in all, a very palpable hit.

Tom Moore

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