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FRA Musica FRA 001
25 Jan 2010

Dido and Aeneas by Les Arts Florissants

We all wish Henry Purcell had written a few more operas like Dido and Aeneas — simple to cast, simple to stage, offering endless possibilities for either reserved or outrageous treatment, attractive to every sort of audience.

Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Malena Ernman (Dido), Judith van Wanroij (Belinda), Hilary Summers (Sorceress), Céline Ricci (First Witch), Ana Quintans (Second Witch); Christopher Maltman (Aeneas), Marc Mauillon (Spirit), Damian Whiteley (Sailor). Prologue: Fiona Shaw. Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. Directed by Deborah Warner, sets and costumes by Chloe Obolensky. Produced by Opéra Comique in cooperation with De Nederlandse Opera and des Wiener Festwochen. Film by François Roussillon. Supplement: A vision of Dido and Aeneas, with William Christie and Deborah Warner. FRA Musica and Opéra Comique. 66 minutes, subtitled. Film: 23 minutes.

FRA Musica FRA 001 [DVD]

$26.99  Click to buy

Producers of opera certainly wish it, for they turn to Dido all the time, in every sort of production and circumstance. Dido, brief and elementary as it is, is a complete work, even “grand” (as William Christie suggests in this DVD’s supplemental film), in the range of emotions it takes us through, the completeness of the story we are asked to feel, the “Shakespearean” variation (as director Deborah Warner suggests in the same film) between heroic tragedy and madcap humor. Dido repays every sort of effort, from amateur to elitist.

Les Arts Florissants are more familiar from their grandiose productions of such works as Lully’s Atys, Charpentier’s Medée, Rameau’s Les Boréades and Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno di Ulisse, but Dido might have almost been composed with their gracious style in mind. Deborah Warner’s production plunks the characters down in a girls’ school (the site of Purcell’s original commission), and leaves the girls such duties as mimed history, shrieking courtiers, masked demons and so on, which they acquit with brio. An inserted prologue presents actress Fiona Shaw reciting (and enacting) Ted Hughes’s version of “Echo and Narcissus” and some bits of Eliot and Yeats on love affairs gone awry, just to put us in the mood for Arcady and broken hearts in lieu of an overture. (Purcell’s, if it ever existed, is lost.)

What follows is always delicious to watch: muscular tumblers writhing together while suspended from the ceiling represent a visible thunderstorm, the sorceress demonstrates her evil by puffing a cig, while her goth attendants snort cocaine in Madonna lingerie, the “spirit” they invoke gives Aeneas’s valet a talking seizure, and Dido takes poison and goes blind, reaching for Belinda’s hand, and fading away in her arms. The set is classic, court and pool and glade, against a shimmering curtain of metallic beads, filmed in Paris’s sumptuous — but not dauntingly enormous — Opéra-Comique.

Delicious too the performances: Malena Erdman’s delicate Dido, each phrase sweet with ardor or drawn out in pain, bustling Judith van Wanroij’s Belinda the motherly confidante, Christopher Maltman’s robust (if sometimes wobbling) Aeneas, Hilary Summers’s louche and envious Sorceress. The English diction of this international company is exceptional: you won’t need titles, even for the choruses. An orchestra of twenty ranges emotionally over the cues of Purcell’s music and Tate’s libretto.

The supplementary film interviews Christie (in French) on the edition of Purcell used and where and why enhanced or revised (it is unclear whether the score as we have it is complete, or exactly when or why it was composed), Warner (in English) on her inspiration from the girls’ school idea and the body of “Arcadian” myth and poetry that Purcell’s audience would have known, but requires a refresher for most modern viewers — so that she and Christie and Fiona Shaw came up with the classically referenced prologue and other references within the staging, to Dido’s earlier widowhood, to Troy’s fate, to Rome’s destiny, and to Diana and Actaeon.

John Yohalem

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