, February 2009
Although there are 21 recordings of Dido and Aeneas currently available on CD in the UK, these two performances under review are its only representation on DVD. The 1995 Dido conducted by Richard Hickox has been available since that year on CD on Chandos Chaconne CHAN 0586. It was also filmed for the BBC, shown on BBC2 in that year and released on video by Warner Classics in 1996. Now it appears on DVD. This is to its advantage for vocally it strikes me as a performance of decorum, the recitatives a bit over-measured and stagy, so the visuals add interest.
Good use is made of the film set, Hampton Court House, a mid 18th century mansion across the road from the Palace, to create a sense of august and ancient surroundings yet adding a claustrophobic element from the fiery light yet surrounding gloom. Much of Act 1 is visually as well as musically restless beneath the apparent smoothness of progression. There are memorable close-ups like the impassive Dido at the outset. Camera-work enhances the unfolding of the drama, as when Dido glides away to a private chamber, away from the court, to convey her intimate thoughts in her first aria ‘Ah Belinda, I am prest with torment’, matching the privacy of her confession, then gazes intently in a mirror but also directly at us as she sings ‘Peace and I are strangers grown’.
There are some neat visual anticipations of musical announcements. In the chorus repeat of ‘Fear no danger’, before Aeneas’ appearance is announced, we see him coming through the hall with his retinue and Dido is then suddenly revealed, as she is to him, on the throne. Aeneas kneels to her just before he sings ‘A hero fall’. Belinda excitedly sings to Aeneas ‘Pursue thy conquest, Love’, Dido takes him by the hand with a melting expression. Through the chorus ‘To the hills and the vales’ they gaze into each other’s eyes, their hands caress and you think they are going to kiss but no, this is the Court. The Triumphing Dance is rather a stuffy parade with the instrumental playing more animated. Vocally Maria Ewing’s Dido is more successful at conveying the imposing Queen than the unhappy woman but her facial expressions redress this. She provides a finely shaded diminuendo on her long sustained note in ‘Ah Belinda’ at ‘would not have it guess’d’, emphasising the secrecy. Karl Daymond is a youthful, perhaps somewhat naïve, ingenuous Aeneas. In vision you are conscious of the age difference in this casting: Ewing was 45 when this film was made. I don’t know Daymond’s age but would reckon she gives him at least 15 years.
To the end of Hickox’s Act 1 takes 16:50. The 2005 live recording conducted by Attilio Cremonesi takes 47:10. This is not because he adopts elephantine tempi, on the contrary he is livelier than Hickox, but because Dido has here been adapted by Sasha Waltz as a choreographic opera with additional musical reconstruction by Cremonesi. They begin by providing a 13 minute musical and choreographed setting of the libretto’s Prologue, for which no music survives. In this Tritons and Nereids emerge from the sea to pay homage to Phoebus and Venus so the first dancers we see are swimming in a large tank, as on the DVD cover. Cremonesi has skilfully found Purcell music from many works to supply this Prologue and extra dances for Dido, but these aren’t identified in the booklet so there’s a challenge for Purcell fans.
Dido’s overture’s slow opening section is illustrated by two dancers as Cupids drawing their bows, but adult Cupids, concentrated and with a certain malice. The fast section brings in a flood of dancers and there’s a sense of irresistible momentum of which the characters themselves aren’t in control which the ‘pure’ opera indeed has. Waltz’s approach becomes clear. The singers sing and dancers, asterisked in the heading above, mirror their moods around them. Deborah York’s Belinda’s ‘Shake the cloud from off your brow’ is pleasingly florid with an improvisatory feel. But Aurore Ugolin’s Dido in her ‘Ah Belinda’ at least half dances, using a highly stylized, self-conscious manner like sign language, totally different from Ewing’s intimacy. Not surprisingly Ugolin’s singing also has more emphasis on technique than emotion. Her roulade on ‘languish’ begins in clipped staccato and later drools indulgently. An interpolated dance after the ritornello following this aria, the tender Air from Purcell’s Bonduca, Z574/4 (track 4 21:48 in continuous timing), better illustrates the intensity of her inner turmoil but halts the drama’s momentum. This is restored by snappy recitatives and choruses. I like the writhing mass of bodies backing the ‘Whence could so much virtue spring?’ sequence and even the chorus starts shuffling for their repeat of ‘Fear no danger’. There’s a racy second repeat of this by instruments alone matched by a high-kicking solo dancer, honouring the libretto’s indication of a ‘Baske’ dance. Later a tiny Cupid dances in silhouette to the improvised Guitars’ Dance over a ground.
At Aeneas’s formal entry the Court is a riot of huge colourful costume, finery matched in the Lullian trills adorning the choruses. Belinda’s ‘Pursue thy conquest, Love’ is shared between her and the First Woman, which works well because of its echoing phrases. Reuben Willcox makes a honey-toned if rather smug Aeneas, in this case a little older than a young and thinly characterized Dido. The Triumphing Dance becomes an excuse for taking off clothes. Later these are piled onto Dido and Aeneas standing there like giant clothes-horses, a wacky role reversal which squashes the dignity of the protagonists, perhaps balanced by a neat speech on the privileges of being a queen (tr. 10 42:38), part of 10 minutes beginning with slapstick, the dancers being somewhat brutally taught a French curtsey, and further dances for the sake of variation; tremendously versatile but I began to wonder if it would ever end.
Act 2 Scene 1 does arrive with hideous figures emerging from trap doors beneath the stage but before the Sorcerer’s ‘Wayward sisters’, the aria which summons them. Peter Maniura, Hickox’s director, makes the same mistake in showing the witches alongside the Sorceress before she sings ‘Appear at my call’. Sally Burgess’s Sorceress, smooth yet malevolently coloured with relish is preferable to the hammy and therefore unduly comic Fabrice Mantegna in the Cremonesi-Waltz production. This Sorcerer is an early 18th century recasting and Cremonesi balances it with male attendant witches, very light in manner and somewhat mincing. Hickox’s female witches are more stunning in their florid virtuosity. Hickox has the better Echo Chorus, suitably recessed with instrumental backing but fails to keep that recessed backing for the Echo Dance, a continuity of effect Purcell intended. Cremonesi doesn’t observe it either. The BBC film benefits from a dark, dank exterior location and a first sight of the Spirit of Mercury when the Sorceress sings ‘My trusty Elf’. The ‘deep vaulted cell’ pictured during the Echo Dance, after it’s sung about in the previous chorus, looks a pretty neat underground kitchen-cum-science lab.
Hickox’s Act 2 Scene 2 gains from the contrast of full daylight. His director shows us the remains of the feast and Dido and Aeneas in each other’s arms in bed. Belinda’s ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’ is creamy, contented, smooth yet kept flowing. In its chorus repeat Dido and Aeneas emerge from their private tent. Now they do kiss briefly, tenderly in public before he goes off hunting. The Second Woman’s ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’ is a bit prim but the bath in which Dido lolls while it is sung seems a match for the ‘fountain’ of the song and enhances its sense of foreboding. The storm arrives, the tent disintegrates and in that same bath Aeneas sees the reflection of the Spirit who summons him away. The Spirit comes with James Bowman’s siren command of voice but is played by Francois Testory. There’s no suggestion the voice comes from his mouth which increases the spookiness. Daymond’s Aeneas responds dutifully then with lyric sensitivity to Dido’s plight as he fondles the dishevelled bedclothes. Then he lies distraught across the bed at the end of his arioso totally destroying his heroic credentials.
Cremonesi-Waltz prefer almost to merge the two scenes of Act 2. The witches writhing on the floor seem to become the courtiers, the women now having more clothes and more colour, the men more or less the same near nakedness. This might be suggesting the witches infiltrate the Court but is more likely a practical requirement of a live performance which uses many dancers on stage through this transition. Belinda glides through the wriggling phalanx appropriately singing the original libretto version ‘Thanks to these lovesome vales’ in a concentrated pearly tone of pure pleasure. Cremonesi’s Second Woman’s ‘Oft she visits this loved mountain’ makes more impact in being more pacy and dramatic than Hickox’s. It is however marred by its sign language-like presentation. Another Belinda air is shared, this time ‘Haste, haste to town’ with Dido. Again this works well because of its imitative nature. The Spirit is the Second Witch with clothes on, which makes his origin clear. Willcox’s response as Aeneas is more regal, perhaps even heroic, in its contrast than Daymond’s. Even so, you feel he is only going through the motions of sensitivity. Hickox doesn’t provide music for the lost witches’ chorus ‘Then since our charms have sped’. Cremonesi gives us deliberation and malevolence.
Cremonesi-Waltz virtually merge Acts 2 and 3 by gathering the dancers slowly on stage with a solo violinist wandering on. Improvisation gradually becomes the Act 3 Prelude, an imaginative expansion of the original. For Hickox the visual presentation in Prelude and Sailor’s song and chorus is of the last moments of pleasure in the brothel. After this the sullen loading of the ship usurps the Sailors’ Dance. Cremonesi-Waltz supply a neatly disciplined dance with a couple of aerial dancers to add a subversive touch appropriate to the entrance of the Sorcerer. The link with the witches has already been made in that the singing Sailor is the First Witch. Although you might not recognize him then you are sure to when he shortly sings another duet with the Second Witch. Hickox’s witches don’t mingle in the scene but stay in the underground kitchen yet continue to be more impressive. Their ‘Elissa’s ruined’ has a great relish and even nobility about it. The Witches’ Dance incorporates lots of fire lighting, including that of a model ship.
The final scene belongs to Dido and Ewing’s dark tone is sombrely heroic. Aeneas’s protests are unconvincing. His thoughtful exit and finally prostrating himself in private is more becoming, though director Peter Maniura overdoes the symbolism of a palace blazing around him. It is as if his witches’ fire-lighting is already getting results. For Waltz Dido and Aeneas sing in their duet of confrontation in opposing masses of bodies, reaching out to each other but impenetrably apart. Ugolin is fiery and impetuous but overmuch truncates her phrases. Ewing delivers her recitative ‘Thy hand, Belinda’ with absorbing sorrow and tragic realization of her fate. Ugolin’s recitative is accompanied by a passionately mournful bass viol which is rather a distraction. Ewing sinks down into Belinda’s bosom to sing her Lament as if her dying has begun. Her repeat of the ‘Remember me’ section is softer, so command turns to plea. Ugolin sings her Lament shrouded in a massive veil of her own hair which has suddenly extended the length of her body. What should be poignant is bizarre. As for Ewing, by the time the instrumental repeat of the funeral chorus is done she has been carried on her bier and engulfed in flames, roses being scattered at the end not, as sung, ‘on her tomb’ but on the charred remains.
So how do you want your Dido visually? Hickox’s is a sensitive, straight performance of the opera, enlivened by the film production and settings but for all that on the sober side. Cremonesi’s is more vibrant musically but dominated by Waltz’s choreography. This live stage performance is a vivid celebration of the expressive power of movement but the force of the tragic opera is overshadowed by a sense of dance extravaganza.