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Reviews

<em>Dido and Aeneas</em>, <em>La Nuova Musica</em> at the Wigmore Hall, London Handel Festival 2018
09 Apr 2018

Dido and Aeneas: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

This performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, was, characteristically for this ensemble, alert to musical details, vividly etched and imaginatively conceived.

Dido and Aeneas, La Nuova Musica at the Wigmore Hall, London Handel Festival 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: David Bates

Photo credit: Andy Staples

 

But, while my attention was drawn to freshening rhythmic gestures in the bass line or inner instrumental voices, and captivated by the enrichment provided by the varying continuo ensemble of theorbo (Alex McCartney (occasionally switching to baroque guitar) and Lynda Sayce) and harp (Siobhan Armstrong), I missed the essential simplicity and sincerity of the work in this lunchtime performance at the Wigmore Hall, where Dido was presented as part of the 2018 London Handel Festival.

I wondered how much time the talented young soloists and chorus members had had to consider and rehearse the practical matters of stage business. Although La Nuova Musica essentially played one-to-a-part and the chorus was formed largely from those taking small solo roles, the Wigmore Hall stage looked uncomfortably crowded. Principal soloists sat stage-right, moving centre for their arias; minor soloists, for the most part, moved to the front, negotiating the instrumentalists - and sometimes other singers - as they made their way to the fore-stage. Though Bates swept fluently from recitative to aria to chorus in a seamless musical continuum, it looked - and thus felt - a little clunky at times.

Singers dealt differently with the circumstances. While tenor Nick Pritchard fairly bounded forward to deliver the Sailor’s light-voiced, vigorous plea to his fellow tars to ‘Come Away’ from the shore-bound nymphs’ allurements and set forth with the impatient tide, bass Richard Bannon took two steps forward, through the viola da gambas, and forthrightly issued the Spirit’s decree that Aeneas must ‘forsake this land’ with statuesque and dark-hued weight.

After Anna Dennis had delivered Belinda’s slightly too frank and forte appeal to Rachel Kelly’s Dido to ‘Shake the cloud from your brow’ - for goodness sake stop wallowing in self-pity, for your solipsistic sorrow is making us all miserable, she seemed to infer - Kelly found herself directing her response, ‘Ah Belinda, I am press’d with torment’, to her conductor, as her companion-servant Belinda had retreated to her seat at the side. Subsequently, Kelly found herself ‘stranded’ onstage during ‘Fear no danger to ensue’ (Belinda, Second Woman and Chorus), and struggled to stay ‘in role’ (i.e. Dido has just sung of her fear that her pity for the distress of others will be her undoing) when tempted to smile at the beguiling quality of the choric assurance that Cupid has strewn Dido’s path with flowers.

But, these are, for the most part, tangential matters. The singing was characterful, and none more so than in the choruses which were invigorating, dramatic and lithe, always propelling the action forward - though the witches’ ‘Ho, ho, ho!’s were rather demure!

Dennis, after a somewhat resounding start - one might expect a slightly lighter voice embodying this impulsive stirrer - found the measure of the Hall, and her mezzo settled beautifully though she remained, to good effect, unafraid to lean on expressive textual details or emotive appoggiaturas. ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’, sung within the tranquil grove, was bright, full and satisfying, the viola da gamba offering further comforting support. Emilie Renard was a Sorceress of supercilious eye-brow raising, sly smiles and sultry vocal tone, and Louise Kemény impressed as the Second Woman: her Act 2 number, ‘Off she visits this lone mountain’, was richly enhanced by the theorbos’ gentle charm and the contrasting animation of the viola da gamba.

I admired George Humphreys’ two embodiments of Cavalli’s Giove in 2016 (for English Touring Opera and for La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall (where I found his powerful baritone, ‘haughtily contemptuous as he surveyed the destruction wreaked on the mortals’ and that ‘his appealing tone captured Giove’s presumptuousness’), as well as the inspiring power and brightness that the baritone put to good use as Lieutenant Jenkins in WNO’s In Parenthesis that year. Humphreys has now joined the ensemble of Salzburg State Theatre and is no doubt destined for satisfying success. But the physical stature and vocal sonority which made his Demetrius so compelling at Snape Maltings in June 2017 made this Aeneas seem rather too big for his boots. One could not fault either technique or attention to textual detail, though; Act 3’s encounter with the Spirit was dramatically intense and engaging, the emotional twists and turns of ‘But ah! what language can I try/ My injur’d Queen to pacify’ being matched by diversity of tone, colour, dynamics, weight and pace.

My one disappointment was Rachel Kelly’s Dido, all the more so for the pleasure that her singing has brought on many other occasions. While the melismas bristled and shone, and she keenly communicated the moments of heightened emotional piquancy and distress, Kelly did not look entirely comfortable in the role of the deserted Queen. I missed a sure, smoothness of line; and the text was not always clearly enunciated, even when set with Purcellian naturalness. ‘Remember me’ is the appeal of the dying Queen … but, I’m not sure one would. I think it boiled down to ‘trying too hard’: vocal sophistication is not what is needed here, as I suggested at the start, it is simplicity and sincerity which make Purcell’s greatness, genius and musical generosity felt.

Claire Seymour

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
London Handel Festival

Dido - Rachel Kelly, George Humphreys - Aeneas, Belinda - Anna Dennis, Sorceress - Emilie Renard, First Witch - Helen Charlston, Second Witch - Martha McLorinan, Second Woman - Louise Kemény, Sailor - Nick Pritchard, Spirit - Richard Bannan; La Nuova Musica - David Bates (harpsichord, organ, director), Anaïs Chen and James Toll (violins), Jane Rogers (viola), Jonathan Rees and Ibraham Aziz (viola da gamba), Alex McCartney and Lynda Sayce (theorbo), Siobhan Armstrong (harp).

Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 7th April 2018.

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