A DIDO AND AENEAS THAT FINISHED WELL
Henry Purcell, DIDO AND AENEAS, COME YE SONS OF ART, Monica Whicher, Jacqueline Woodley, Danielle Reutter-Harrah, Pascal Beaudin (sopranos), Reginald L. Mobley (alto), Charles Daniels (tenor), Sumner Thompson (baritone); EMV Festival Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, Alexander Weimann, music director, Chan Centre, July 30, 2015.
Purcell’s much loved masterpiece has been an infrequent visitor to Vancouver. To put things in sharp relief, the only performance that resonates in my memory dates all the way back to 1973, when the (then) Department of Communications at Simon Fraser University put on a full-stage production, directed by John Juliani with Phyllis Mailing as a compelling Dido – one of the boldest artistic projects ever realized by that university. Accordingly, one should be especially grateful for this current performance, the centerpiece of Early Music Vancouver’s 2015 Summer Festival. Music director Alexander Weimann has conducted both King Arthur and The Fairy Queen with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra in previous years, so he is hardly a stranger to Purcell’s music. In fact, he has just constructed a new performing edition of Dido and Aeneas. This concert performance was authentic in the sense that the low pitch (392), and the chorus of a dozen singers employed (secondary singers also being part of the chorus), would have been standard in the composer’s time. As well, the ornamentation was revised. The only questionable feature was performing the score ‘one in a part’. This has been tried before under the name of historically-informed practice but using a full Baroque orchestra is likely more accurate.
Maestro Weimann’s approach to works of this period has always been extremely conscientious and rhythmically astute, placing emphasis on establishing structural cohesion and resiliency of line. The finest feature of this performance was the intensity and concentration established in the work’s later parts. At the same time, I thought that the musical development early on tended to be slightly rigid and expressively restrained. The arresting opening chords of the overture – stating the seriousness of the drama and exposing Purcell’s wonderful strain of melancholy – were presented in a largely matter-of-fact way, at a fast tempo, moving into the string staccatos and bustle almost without hesitation. Jaqueline Woodley’s Belinda had a certain charm and effervescence, but she often seemed in a hurry, failing to give her phrases time to settle naturally. Monica Whicher’s Dido was appropriately regal in style, poised in articulation, but a trace self-effacing. Sumner Thompson’s Aeneas started as more roughhewn than commanding, but dug in emotionally as things moved on. Overall, these proceedings seemed light on dramatic profile and I often felt the need for sharper expression in the singing -- and from the Chorus too -- if only to set up the ‘theatre’ of the first scene of Act Two. The small size of the string section struck me as something of a liability at this point.
The hijinks that begin the next act were certainly not underplayed, and the entire ensemble seemed freer dramatically. There was a lot of energy here, and Danielle Reuter-Harrah’s Sorceress was a delight, interacting with the witches in a manner born. The secondary soloists were very fine in general, though perhaps the extent of posturing was excessive for a concert performance. Everything improved again as we moved through the closing scene of Act II, almost as if it became clear to everyone exactly what could be achieved within the smaller scale of this performance. There was greater sophistication in the dynamics of the Chorus, their integration with the instrumentalists was more crystalline, and there was more intimacy in feeling. The ‘one in a part’ configuration became more interesting, exposing vividly raw textures and rustic accents within the relatively sparse overall fabric. Adding to this at the end was Reginald L Mobley’s tender, beguiling, and otherworldly rendering of Spirit.
The only item in Act III that I found questionable was the vivid theatrics of Charles Daniels’ Drunken Sailor. This a short act, and while I would be the first to appreciate Purcell’s art in juxtaposing tragedy with comic interludes, I thought it drew too much attention to itself. Otherwise, the musical development was very successful, finding intensity, repose and expressive space in equal measure. The style was still tightly drawn, but full of insight, and its combination of stark voicings and rustic dance rhythms, drawn together with a slow burning intensity, actually hinted at a more ‘ancient’ feeling overall. I am not sure the singing was precisely in this spirit but Dido’s great Lament -- stoic, distilled and wonderfully concentrated in Monica Whicher’s hands -- turned out perfectly. The closing Chorus ushered in a lovely stillness and floated off almost in a timeless way. Presented in this way, Dido and Aeneas really was as a timeless tragedy and, quite rightly, not one from this world.
The opening Come Ye Sons of Art provided an appealing appetizer to Dido, and featured some fine singing from the above soloists. Overall, I found it enjoyable but somewhat on the sober side, the work’s full joy and delight not always springing forth. Some instrumental inaccuracies and choral imbalances may have had something to do with this.
© Geoffrey Newman 2015