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Recordings of Purcell’s Dido And Aeneas ultimately hinge on the dramatic strengths of the singer playing Dido, so who is best as the tragic queen?
Henry Purcell’s Dido And Aeneas (his only true opera) has become his best-loved work, but during his lifetime very few people got to hear it. Evidence suggests that the premiere took place in 1689, when the composer was 30, at a girls’ boarding house in Chelsea run by Jonas Priest, London’s leading professional choreographer.
Nahum Tate was the librettist and he based the opera on his own play Brutus Of Alba and the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. The plot sees the Trojan prince Aeneas and his crew shipwrecked in Carthage; he has fallen in love with Queen Dido.
However, Aeneas is summoned to Rome by the appearance of a mysterious spirit; Dido is devastated by his departure and resorts to killing herself. As far as the music is concerned, there is more than a nod to John Blow’s Venus And Adonis composed in about 1683. Purcell drew ideas from this court masque by his former teacher, which had also been produced at Jonas Priest’s school in London.
Unfortunately, no manuscript of Dido And Aeneas exists in Purcell’s hand; the only 17th century source is a libretto, believed to have been from the first performance in 1689.
Consequently all the contenders have differing textual ideas, such as Christopher Hogwood’s use of a countertenor as the Sorceress and a boy as the First Sailor. It’s a strong cast, which includes Emma Kirkby and Catherine Bott who both give committed and idiomatic performances (so do the thunder and lightning sound effects, but they are perhaps too imposing and distracting!).
For a more intimate approach, William Christie and his forces hold the key and deliver in style. Christie adopts brisk tempi but eases off the gas in order to create a chillingly tense atmosphere as Dido approaches her tragic end. Although Véronique Gens’s take on the famous lament When I Am Laid In Earth is especially heart- stopping,
Janet Baker (in a recording made fifty-so years ago) takes it to another level. She is just as emotionally charged in Dido’s other big aria at the start of Act 1 that heralds an interpretation of great depth and beauty. It’s hard to believe that this was the first operatic role Dame Janet attempted on disc. Credit must also go to conductor Anthony Lewis for the way in which he delicately controls the orchestral accompaniment.
However, some may prefer the period instruments that Hogwood and Christie favour and also those of our final duo, both featuring Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment. First up is René Jacobs who despatches a reading of high drama in a first-class recording.
Lynne Dawson is utterly compelling as Dido, as is Gerald Finley’s Aeneas, who incidentally is common to both this and the final version. Other highlights include outrageously scary performances from Susan Bickley as the Sorceress and the countertenors, Dominique Visse and Stephen Wallace, playing the two witches.
As for the Dido of today, this accolade must go to Sarah Connolly, who under directors Elizabeth Kenny and Steven Devine gives a sensational performance. Lucy Crowe deserves high praise for her exquisite Belinda and the orchestral dances and catchy guitar improvisations add to the overall enjoyment.
It’s been a fascinating journey through a rich crop of very different versions of Purcell’s truly great achievement. It therefore warrants an equally great interpretation and in Dame Janet Baker and co we have just that. A must have!
THE BEST RECORDING TO OWN
Janet Baker (mz), ECO/ Anthony Lewis
DECCA 466 3872