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Dido and Aeneas

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Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, S. Graham, I. Bostridge, F. Palmer, D. Daniels, Le Concert d'Astrée, European Voices, E. Haïm
Virgin Veritas 7243 5 45605 2 1
Dido and Aeneas:
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Christie (LAF)

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Jacobs (OAE)

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Lorraine Hunt (PBO)

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Hogwood (AAM)

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Pinnock (EC)
Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is that rare creature, a Baroque opera that has long had a place in the standard repertory, if not always in staged productions at least in recording. Singers who have assayed the Queen of Carthage include such decidedly non baroqueux names as Janet Baker, Teresa Berganza, Kathleen Ferrier, Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Kirsten Flagstad (with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as Belinda!). The story, told in the first part of Virgil's Aeneid, has long been a literary favorite, one of the archetypes of doomed passion, love betrayed by duty. Far from expiring from sadness, Virgil's Dido kills herself with Aeneas's sword on a funeral pyre, calling down a curse that will cause enmity between her city and the one that Aeneas is destined to found, Rome.

The literary and artistic influence of Dido extends from Ovid (the seventh letter of the Heroides) to St. Augustine (who cites his own artistic compassion for Dido's plight in his Confessions) to Dante (who places her in the second circle of Inferno, where Augustine's misplaced sympathy for Dido offers a parallel to Dante's apparent sympathy for Francesca). Not least, the story was popular with Baroque opera composers, most famously the little opera Purcell composed for the "young gentlewomen" of Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding School in Chelsea, on a libretto by Nahum Tate.

I was compelled to learn about the wanderings of a certain Aeneas, oblivious of my own wanderings, and to weep for Dido dead, who slew herself for love. And all this while I bore with dry eyes my own wretched self dying to thee, O God, my life, in the midst of these things. For what can be more wretched than the wretch who has no pity upon himself, who sheds tears over Dido, dead for the love of Aeneas, but who sheds no tears for his own death in not loving thee, O God, light of my heart, and bread of the inner mouth of my soul, O power that links together my mind with my inmost thoughts? [...] And, if I had been forbidden to read these poems, I would have grieved that I was not allowed to read what grieved me. This sort of madness is considered more honorable and more fruitful learning than the beginner's course in which I learned to read and write.

-- St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book I, Chapter 13
Of the many worthy recordings (shown at left, more or less in order of preference), this recent one, with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting Le Concert d'Astrée, is my current favorite. This is partly because the singers are so extraordinarily good. Susan Graham is a luxurious Dido, with the warm tone and seemingly unending line that can show why some HIP singers sound so cold. Purcell's Dido is less strident than Virgil's, simply expiring without the curses and dramatic suicide, and Graham's interpretation is all curves and few edges. Ian Bostridge is a patrician Aeneas, and Felicity Palmer a corrosively acerbic Sorceress, with fine supporting turns by David Daniels as the Sorceress's false Mercury, Camille Tilling and Cécile de Boever as Belinda and the Second Woman, and European Voices on the choral parts. Haïm leads an exciting and fast-paced reading, in a relentless search for dramatic articulation and dance-propelled rhythm.

The Mark Morris Dance Group will present the second local performance of its adaptation of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas tonight (February 16, 8 pm), at the George Mason University Center for the Arts (review forthcoming).


Chester said...

I agree on the Haïm but I like the Troyanos/Mackerras much more than some of the others you've listed.

Charles T. Downey said...

Clearly, I need to listen to that recording again.

jfl said...

It has the advantage of being coupled with a wonderful ode on st. cecilia's day.

It is lovely, but distinctly not HIP as we now understand it.

Ionarts review: