About this Recording
8.111264 - PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas (Flagstad, Schwarzkopf, Hemsley) (1952)
English 

Great Opera Recordings
Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas

Opera in Three Acts
Libretto by Nahum Tate after Virgil's Aeneid

Dido - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Belinda - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
First Lady - Eilidh McNab (soprano)
Second Lady - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Sorceress - Arda Mandikian (mezzo-soprano)
First Witch - Sheila Rex (soprano)
Second Witch - Anna Pollak (soprano)
Attendant Spirit - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Aeneas - Thomas Hemsley (baritone)
Sailor - David Lloyd (tenor)

The Mermaid Singers and Orchestra
(Raymond Clark, cello continuo)
Geraint Jones

 

Henry Purcell was the foremost English composer of his time and during his short life produced a wide variety of music. From the age of ten he was a chorister of the Chapel Royal and was later trained by Blow, Cooke and Pelham Humfrey. Appointed composer to the King's band in 1699 and then organist of Westminster Abbey in 1679, he moved three years later to the Chapel Royal. It was during the ensuing decade that Purcell wrote odes, 'welcome songs', church music, incidental music for plays and many secular songs. In the final five years of his life Purcell's career moved decisively towards the stage, the cause being the decision by the monarchs William and Mary greatly to reduce the scope of the Royal Musick. He composed Dido and Aeneas (1689) and a series of semi-operas Dioclesian (1690), King Arthur (text by John Dryden, 1691), The Fairy Queen (to an anonymous text after Shakespeare, 1692), The Indian Queen (text by Dryden and Howard, 1695), and The Tempest (after Shakespeare, 1695).

Dido and Aeneas is Purcell's only true opera with continuous scenes and recitatives instead of spoken dialogue. The composer uses John Blow's Venus and Adonis (1684) as a model. Purcell wrote a work of memorable dramatic potency and musical creativity, derived through simple means but conveying such depth of human understanding so as to make the whole a tragedy. Sadly no music for the allegorical Prologue survives but the opera is in three acts, set to a text by Nahum Tate (later to become the Poet Laureate) which he based on Book Four of Virgil's Aeneid and on his own tragedy Brutus of Alba (1678). Tate also changed the name of the character Anna to that of Belinda. The inclusion of the Sorceress and her witches was added to satisfy the London audiences of the time.

Various versions of the opera survive, the one most generally accepted by scholars being the manuscript held in the Library of St Michael's College, Tenbury. The libretto includes the text of an elaborate mythological prologue, not held in the Tenbury source: this was included in the original production, when an Epilogue by D'Urfey was spoken. It is also not known whether Purcell set the Prologue. We know the work only as an adaptation made in the eighteenth century as "A Mask in Four Musical Entertainments".

Furthermore, the libretto has a different arrangement of the acts. For this recording the closing verses of Act 2, Scene 2 (no music survives) are set to a passage from Purcell's Welcome Song on his return from Newcastle (1682), in addition to an air from the music from The Virtuous Wife as the final dance.

Doubt still continues as to the opera's première. Was it at Josias Priest's School for Young Gentlewomen in Chelsea during December 1689 or possibly the following summer? Then there was a public production on 9 February 1704. The first known revival in more recent times was by students of the Royal College of Music in London on 20 November 1895 at the Lyceum Theatre to mark the bicentenary of Purcell's death.

After a short overture, written in the traditional slow and quick section in the French style, the first scene of Act 1 opens in the royal palace at Carthage. In an aria of much subtlety on a ground bass, Queen Dido confesses to her confidante, Belinda, her love for Aeneas. The latter appears and begs the Queen to yield to his advances. Belinda encourages the lovers. The chorus then sing a song of love triumphant and the scene ends with a Triumphing Dance on another ground bass.

In the second act a Sorceress and her witches, in an echoing cave, conspire to part the lovers ("Wayward sisters"). The witches also plot a storm to break up the planned royal hunting party. The second scene takes place in a grove. Dido and Aeneas are out hunting, and Belinda, with the chorus, praises a place worthy of the goddess Diana ("Thanks to these lonesome vales"). In a song over another ground bass an attendant recalls how Actæon met his death ("Oft she visits this lone mountain"). A storm arises and the hunting-party scatters ("Haste, haste to town"). The spirit conjured up by the Sorceress, in the likeness of Mercury, appears to Aeneas, telling him that Jupiter commands his instant return to restore the ruined Troy ("Stay, Prince"). The hero reluctantly obeys, accepting that love must be sacrificed to duty and the will of the gods.

In the last Act we see the ships and sailors awaiting Aeneas. A lively introduction leads to a song for a sailor ("Come away, fellow sailors") which is followed by the chorus and rounded off by a hornpipe. The Sorceress and her witches reappear to express their joy at the impending tragedy ("Destruction's our delight"). Dido appears first, followed by Aeneas, who tells her that he must forsake love for duty. Dido taunts him, but when Aeneas decides to defy Jupiter and remain, the affronted queen finally spurns him, and he departs for Italy. Dido, after singing a most dramatic farewell aria of intense emotion, dies of grief ("When I am laid in earth"). A tender chorus closes the work ("With drooping wings").

The first complete recording of Dido and Aeneas (using an edition by Edward Dent) was made by Decca in 1936, conducted by Clarence Raybould with the twenty-year-old mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans as the heroine, and a decade later a further version appeared, conducted by Constant Lambert, with the soprano Joan Hammond as Dido. In the summer of 1951 the actor/manager Bernard Miles created the Mermaid Theatre in London in the style of an Elizabethan playhouse. He offered the part of the heroine to the distinguished Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962), the artist being paid (supposedly) for her labours in oatmeal stout following each performance. She agreed, as did her fellow-singers and musicians, and a series of memorable performances took place under the conductor Geraint Jones, some of which were recorded live but sadly proved unsuitable for publication for a variety of reasons. The artists also took part in a broadcast performance which happily survives. The studio-made published version, however, contains a number of changes of cast, most notably the part of Belinda in the presence of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, wife of recording producer Walter Legge (1906-1979).

The Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) was born in Hamar. Her father was a conductor and her mother a pianist and coach (and her first teacher). She later studied with Ellen Schytte-Jacobsen in Oslo and Gillis Bratt in Stockholm. Her début took place in December 1913 in the National Theatre in Oslo as Nuri in D'Albert's Tiefland. During the following years she sang regularly with the company both in opera and operetta as well as enjoying a parallel career in the concert hall. It was her first Isolde in Wagner's opera which aroused interest beyond her native shores. Her first overseas appearances were in minor rôles at the 1933 Bayreuth Festival to where she returned the following year as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. This success led to her engagement at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where she made an unheralded début as Sieglinde which was broadcast and created a sensation. For her other Wagnerian rôles of Brünnhilde, Elsa, Elisabeth and Kundry, Flagstad was hailed as the most important Wagnerian soprano of her time. She also appeared in San Francisco (1935-38), Chicago (1937), and Covent Garden (1936-37). She returned to Norway in 1941 to be with her husband whose right-wing political alliances subsequently caused problems for the singer in the immediate postwar years. She resumed her European career in 1947, returned to Covent Garden (1948-51), sang Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio at the Salzburg Festival under Furtwängler (1949-50) but did not reappear in New York until the 1950-51 season. She gave the world première of Richard Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder in London in December 1950. Her farewell to the stage was as Purcell's Dido in 1953 but she continued to record and sing in concert until 1960. During the years 1958-60 Flagstad was Director of the Norwegian National Opera. She also took part in the historic Decca recording of Das Rheingold in October 1958. Her voice was one of great radiance, power and range allied to splendid musicianship in matter of intonation and rhythm. Once when a fellow artist, noting her tremendous reserves of stamina, asked her following a performance of Tristan, whether she could sing the part all over again, she replied: "Yes, certainly the first act"!

The English baritone Thomas Hemsley was born in Coalville, Derbyshire in 1927. He went to Brasenose College, Oxford and studied singing privately with Lucie Manen. It was as Aeneas in Purcell's opera that he made his stage début in 1951 at the Mermaid Theatre, London. He appeared at Glyndebourne between 1953 and 1961, sang with Aachen City Opera (1953-56), Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf (1957-63), Zürich Opera (1963-67) and Bayreuth (1968-70). He also sang with the English Opera Group from 1955 onward and created the rôle of Demetrius in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1960. His first appearance at Covent Garden was in the première of Tippett's The Knot Garden in 1970. His other parts included Don Fernando, Count Almaviva, Dr Malatesta, Masetto and Beckmesser. In parallel he enjoyed a successful career in the concert hall, especially in the field of Lieder. Later he became an opera director and teacher. He wrote Singing and Imagination: a human approach to a Great Musical Tradition (OUP: 1998)

The German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006) studied at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik and later with the soprano Maria Ivogün, making her début as one of the Flowermaidens in Parsifal with the Städtische Oper, Berlin, in 1938. Originally a lyrical soprano she undertook rôles such as Adele in Die Fledermaus, Musetta in La Bohème and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos when she joined the Vienna State Opera under Karl Böhm in 1943. Her first overseas appearance was with this company on their visit to London in 1947 when she sang Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Marzelline in Fidelio. She then joined the fledgling Covent Garden Company, where for five seasons she sang a variety of rôles, mostly in English. Alongside these appearances, Schwarzkopf sang at the Salzburg Festival (1946- 1964), La Scala, Milan (1948-1963), San Francisco (1955-1964) and, finally, the Metropolitan in New York in 1964. She was greatly admired in the rôles of the Marschallin, Fiordiligi, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro and Donna Elvira. Schwarzkopf also created the rôle of Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in September 1951. She also had a distinguished parallel career as a Lieder singer she continued to give master-classes and adjudicate in major competitions. A fiercely self-critical artist, Schwarzkopf was extremely demanding of herself and her art. She was the wife of the impresario and recording producer Walter Legge whom she married in 1953, becoming a naturalised British subject. She was created a DBE in 1992.

The Greek soprano Arda Mandikian was born in Smyrna (then part of Greece now Turkey ) in 1924. She studied at the Athens Conservatory with soprano Elvira de Hildalgo (who also taught Maria Callas) and the mezzo Alexandra Trianti (1901-1977). She made her début aged fifteen in a students' concert in February 1940 singing the duet "Mira, O Norma" from Bellini's Norma with Callas. She remained in Greece until 1948 before coming to Britain and making her stage début in the title role of Egon Wellesz's Incognita in Oxford. She appeared regularly at the Aldeburgh Festival during the 1950s and 1960s, and created the part of Miss Jessel in Britten's Turn of the Screw in September 1954 in Venice, repeated the part in the British première the following month in addition to taking part in the subsequent recording in January 1955. She first appeared at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in Britten's Peter Grimes in December 1953 and Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'or the following year. She sang regularly at the Proms and widely in Europe.

Geraint Jones (1917-1998) enjoyed a highly successful career as an organist, harpsichordist, as a conductor and recording producer. Born in Porth, Wales, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, making his début as harpsichordist in a concert at the National Gallery in 1940. He became well known through a series of broadcasts and recordings featuring historic European organs. In 1951 he founded the Geraint Jones Singers and Orchestra. During the 1950s he was much in demand as a conductor, making excellent versions of Bach, Handel and Purcell and the first complete studio recording of Gluck's Alceste with Flagstad in the title rôle in 1956. As a recording producer Jones worked with, among others, Walter Gieseking, Nicolai Gedda, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Otto Klemperer and Paul Kletzki. In 1958 he conducted the first recording made by Archiv Produktion in Britain of Handel's Te Deum and Jubilate for the Peace of Utrecht. Between 1960 and 1978 he was Musical Director of the Lake District Festival, Artistic Director of the Kirkman Concert Society (1963-1998), Artistic Director of the Salisbury Festival of the Arts (1972-77) and from 1977 Director of the Manchester International Organ Festival.

When the recording of Dido and Aeneas first appeared in January 1953 The Gramophone commented: "At last we have a really satisfactory recording of Dido". The reviewer found "Madame Flagstad in splendid voice and her tone is most perfectly controlled". Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was deemed "a vivacious Belinda", Arda Mandikian's Sorceress "sufficiently spiteful" and Thomas Hemsley "a dignified and slightly diffident Aeneas, but I imagine Dido gave him a strong inferiority complex". The direction of Geraint Jones was praised for its "musicianly playing and a lack of that lumpy rhythm that is fatal in Purcell's music". The chorus were "lively and excellent" and the playing of the orchestra "good".

Malcolm Walker

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PURCELL : Dido and Aeneas
Recorded 15, 27-28 March 1952 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
First issued on HMV ALP 1026

J. S. BACH: St. Matthew Passion: Erbarme dich, mein Gott
Recorded 25 June 1950 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
Matrices: 2EA 14845 and 14846. First issued on HMV DB 21237

HANDEL: Serse: Frondi tenere e belle … Ombra mai fu (Act 1)
Recorded 3 July 1948 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
Matrices: 2EA 13204. First issued on HMV DB 6791

PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas: Thy hand, Belinda … When I am laid in earth (Act 3)
Recorded 29 May 1948 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
Matrices: 2EA 13087. First issued on HMV DB 6913

 


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