Saturday, January 19, 2019

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

It is an intriguing coincidence that some of the great masterpieces of music history leave many questions which have not been answered yet, and probably never will be Examples are Monteverdi's Vespers, Bach's B minor Mass and Mozart's Requiem. To that list one can add Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. For a long time it was thought to have received its first performance in 1689 at Josias Priest's Boarding School for Young Gentlewomen, but first it was discovered that an earlier performance may have taken place at that school two years before. Right now it is assumed that it may have received its premiere at the court of Charles II, as early as 1684. From that perspective the statement of Robert Matthew-Walker, in the liner-notes to Christopher Monks's recording, that "[there] is also a subtle reference to contemporary events: the first chorus: 'When monarchs unite, how happy their state,' was - in 1689 - surely a direct reference to the accession to the throne of the joint British monarchs William and Mary the previous year", is highly questionable.

He also does not mention the problems with regard to the sources, which are discussed by Ellen Hargis in the booklet to Fabio Bonizzoni's recording. We know next to nothing about the first performances. The earliest musical source of the entire opera dates from about a century later. More interesting is a performance in London in 1704, the second at the public stage; the first public performance was in 1700. In 1704 Purcell's opera was preceded by the masque Mars and Venus by John Eccles and Godfrey Finger. "The conjunction of these two masques also provides information on the vocal ranges in Dido and Aeneas, as the singers in the masque of Mars and Venus are known. In all, Mars and Venus calls for one boy, two men, and five women (...)", Ellen Hargis writes. They can be correlated to Purcell's score, and that results in the Sorceress being scored for a bass rather than a mezzo-soprano or alto, as is the case in many recordings. That is not to say that the latter option is wrong; for the performance at the boarding school that part may have been transposed up an octave. Another difference is the role of the Sailor, mostly performed by a tenor, but apparently intended for a soprano. Bonizzoni follows these indications in his recording. In some recordings attempts are made to reconstruct dances which may have been part of the original performances. The only specimen in Monks's recording is a Guitars' Chaconne in the first act. Bonizzoni plays here a kind of improvisation as well, and if I am not mistaken, it is based on a piece by the Italian Bernardo Storace, which is a little odd.

The liner-notes to Monks' recording are not really up-to-date, and in a way that goes for the performance as well. I haven't heard anything I had not heard before. In no respect this recording offers a new perspective, which is disappointing, considering the large number of recordings in the catalogue. That would be less of a problem if the performance would have been really good, but it is not. Most of the singers use quite a lot of vibrato, and that includes Rachael Lloyd, who takes care of the role of Dido. It severely damages the famous lament, which makes too little emotional impact anyway. The most stylish singer is Roderick Morris as the Sorceress, but he seems vocally overstretched, and does not make much of his role, which is anything but fearsome. As is so often the case in performances of Dido and Aeneas, the Witches make a caricature of their part, producing the conventional nasal sound and singing deliberately out of tune. However, this opera is a tragedy, not a comedy. Bonizzoni understands that, and in his performance the Witches have to be taken seriously. In that respect there is more consistency with the role of the Sorceress, who is really threatening, thanks to Iason Marmaras' excellent interpretation. On the other hand, here the bickering between Dido and Aeneas at the end - "I'll stay / Away, away" - is unsatisfying: the tempo is too slow and as a result the agitated character of this dialogue doesn't come off. In this recording the performance of the part of Dido by Raffaella Milanesi does certainly not lack emotional depth, but stylistically it is disappointing because of her incessant vibrato.

Her diction also leaves a bit to be desired; the text is not always clearly intelligible, which is especially regrettable as we come here to one of the ground-breaking aspects of this recording: the use of historical pronunciation. The starting point was the fact that words which are supposed to rhyme, don't in present-day English. In order to correct that, the performers have adopted a kind of historical pronunciation. As a result "destiny" rhymes to "defie" (Aeneas, act 1) and "wounds" to "hounds" (Belinda, act 2). This is of great importance, but I have the feeling that the performers are a bit half-hearted. I remember to have heard that at that time, for instance, the pronucnation of the "r" was closer to present-day American English than to 'Oxbridge' English. The differences could be much more far-reaching than this recording suggests. It seems there is still some work to do in this department.

The third recording to be reviewed here is a staged performance, released on DVD by Alpha. Vincent Dumestre, director of the renowned ensemble Le Poème Harmonique, is responsible for this performance which took place in 2014 at the Opéra of Rouen. Those who have enjoyed the recording of, for instance, Lully's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, may expect a comparable approach here: historical staging and costumes, baroque acting gestures and a use of historical pronunciation. They will be severely disappointed. As far as I know the stage directors have no experience with baroque opera, and although they deliberately avoided a "consciously modernising transposition", they did not opt for "a pure historical reconstruction". Incorrectly they call both options "extremes" - in my view a basic misunderstanding. If one aims to do as much justice to the intentions of the composer as possible, the adherence to what we know about the performance habits of his time is the most logical option. That said, in comparison to so many stagings of 18th-century operas, there is little here that is outright annoying. That is at least something. As you will understand, historical acting and pronunciation are also ignored here.

I already mentioned the scoring of the various roles. Like in Bonizzoni's recording, the role of the Sorceress is sung here by a baritone (Marc Mauillon). However, he also sings the role of the Sailor, which was originally intended for a soprano. Unfortunately that is not the only unhistorical aspect of this recording. The orchestra is relatively large, including eight violins and three violas. Even more problematic is the participation of instruments Purcell did not include in his scoring, such as recorders, oboes and bassoons. In the ensemble we also find a double bass, although it is known that in Purcell's time this instrument was not used (it is also part of the Armonico Consort; the instruments in Bonizzoni's performance are not listed). There are also guitars, which mostly play in the reconstruction of some dances. It is assumed that there were several dances in the score, but the music has mostly not survived.

The performance does not give much reason for enjoyment. Vivica Genaux is pretty horrible. I find her voice unpleasantly harsh, and she has quite some intonation problems. Moreover, she uses a pretty wide vibrato on virtually every note, and as a result the famous Lament is severely damaged. Henk Neven is alright as Aeneas, but is rather bland in the account of his role, and there is little 'baroque' in his style of singing. Vocally speaking Marc Mauillon is by far the best of the ensemble. Ana Quintans as Belinda does rather well, but I can't really warm to her singing either. The minor roles are not more than mediocre.

All in all, neither of these three recordings does really satisfy me, as neither consistently applies what we know about performing habits at the time. If I had to choose between these three, I would go for Bonizzoni, as he is most consistent in the scoring of the various roles, and makes use of historical pronunciation, Moreover, he also offers Mars and Venus by John Eccles and Godfrey Finger, which preceded Dido and Aeneas in the London performance of 1704. It is here performed after Purcell's opera, but if you want to 'reconstruct' that performance, you can easily do so by programming your CD player accordingly.

Rachael Lloyd (Dido), Elin Manahan Thomas (Belinda), Eloise Irving (Second Woman, First Witch, Spirit), Jenni Harper (Second Witch), soprano; Roderick Morris (Sorceress), alto; Robert Davies (Aeneas), Miles Golding (Sailor), baritone
Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
Recorded October 2014 at the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, UK DDD
Texts included
Cover, track-list & booklet
Signum Classics - SIGCD417 [50'45"]

Raffaella Milanesi (Dido), Stefanie True (Belinda), Michela Antenucci (First Witch, Sailor), soprano; Anna Bessi (Second Witch, Spirit), mezzo-soprano; Richard Helm (Aeneas), Iason Marmaras (Sorceress), baritone
Coro Costanzo Porta; La Risonanza/Fabio Bonizzoni
(+ John Eccles (1668-1735) & Gottfried Finger (1685-1717), The Love of Mars and Venus, 1680)
Recorded live 25 February 2016 at Cité de la Musique et de la Danse, Soissons, France DDD
Texts included
Cover, track-list & booklet
Challenge Classics - CC72737 [76'11"]

Ana Quintans (Belinda), Caroline Meng (First Witch), Jenny Daviet (Second Woman), soprano; Vivica Genaux (Dido), Lucile Richardot (Second Witch), mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Tamagna (Spirit), alto; Henk Neven (Aeneas), Marc Mauillon (Sorceress, Sailor), baritone
Choeur Accentus; Le Poème Harmonique/Vincent Dumestre
Recorded May 2014 at the Opéra, Rouen (Haute-Normandie), France DDD
Subtitles in E/F/D/ES
The entire performance is available on YouTube
Alpha - 706 [1.20']