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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.
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
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
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