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Henry Purcell by John Closterman
10 Feb 2012

Dido and Aeneas, Manitoba

Winnipeg music lovers were willingly transported back several centuries as Daniel Taylor and Montreal-based Theatre of Early Music graced Westminster United Church with a program of infrequently heard music.

Henry Purcell: Dido Aeneas

Theatre of Early Music and Manitoba Opera/Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Westminster United Church, Winnipeg, February 7-8

Above: Henry Purcell by John Closterman


This co-production by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and Manitoba Opera brought 17th century English baroque composer Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to the stage, along with a selection of his other solo works and with works by Tallis and Handel.

The 50-minute Dido and Aeneas is heralded by many as the very first English language opera and, despite the lack of costumes or sets, it leapt to life before our eyes. This matchless ensemble was a joy from beginning to end. It was incredible to discover that while each splendid soloist was truly unique, possessing a timbre, expression and tone all their own, they combined as a chorus into a superbly blended unit. Taylor moved seamlessly from conductor to countertenor soloist (in the role of the evil Sorceress.) He led an accomplished seven-piece baroque orchestra (including lute) with a subtle touch, resulting in an impressively authentic rendition.

Soprano Noemi Kiss as Dido, Queen of Carthage, was in fine voice, sculpting deep feeling into her phrases, with the lightest of vibrato — suited to the era. We truly believed her when she sang of her predicament, her growing love for Aeneas. The famous aria/lament, “When I am laid in earth” was positively heart-wrenching as “remember me” hung in the air hauntingly, ensuring that we would.

Grace Davidson as Belinda, in whom Dido confides, brought a refreshing innocence to her role, with a lovely clarity of voice only curiously tinged with a somewhat lisping “s,” most noticeable in “Thanks to these lonesome vales …”

Aeneas was fittingly tall, dark and handsome with British-Canadian baritone Alexander Dobson truly living the part. Moving with dramatic conviction, he wooed Dido with his impressive range — a delightfully rich low register and surprisingly sweet ease up top as well. His flawless enunciation made the lyrics jump off the stage.

Taylor transformed himself from conductor to Sorceress by unleashing his mop of wavy hair and adopting a wild-eyed facial expression. With deliberation and intense audacity, he put forth his distinctive voice in a spotless soprano range, with timbre and texture that are purely Taylor. His divinely voiced cohorts, witches Meara Conway, soprano and Meg Bragle, mezzo were deliciously conniving, chuckling over their conspiracy.

Agnes Zsigovics as the Second Woman brought the same ringing tone she employed in her earlier solo, “Pilgrim’s Home” from Handel’s Theodora. Her clean, assertive style sets her apart.

Tenor Benjamin Butterfield had but a cameo role as the sailor in the production, but how he milked it! With true nautical spirit, he urged his colleagues on with smiling singing and plenty of hand rubbing. Fortunately, we had another opportunity to hear this peerless artist in “Total Eclipse” from Handel’s Samson in the first half of the program. We were immediately struck by the ease and passion of his delivery and the dazzling tone purity.

The epitome of control, the chorus ended this mesmerizing performance with a gossamer sadness that left the audience silent — until they erupted into a much-deserved standing ovation.

Gwenda Nemerofsky

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