CONDUCTOR ALEXANDER WEIMANN ON PURCELL’S DIDO AND AENEAS

As the highlight of the 2015 Early Music Vancouver Summer Festival approaches, we were fortunate to be able to catch up with Maestro Weimann and find out some of his thoughts on performing Henry Purcell’s masterpiece (July 30, 7:30pm, Chan Centre).  Alexander Weimann grew up in Munich, later moving to Berlin, before coming to Canada. He relocated from Montreal only a year ago to assume artistic directorship of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra.  He also maintains his positions as music director of Les Voix Baroques, Le Nouvel Opéra, and Tempo Rubato in Montreal and has also just been named music director of Seattle Baroque Orchestra.  Weimann initially studied organ, but was so intrigued by the harpsichord that he taught himself how to play it.  He is now both an esteemed harpsichordist and conductor.  Of his recordings (principally on the ATMA label), his Handel’s Orlando with Pacific Baroque and Bach St. John Passion with the Arion Baroque Orchestra have received the highest praise, alongside his two solo volumes of Scarlatti sonatas.   

1. YOU HAVE CONDUCTED SO MUCH HANDEL FOR EARLY MUSIC VANCOUVER IN RECENT YEARS. DO YOU FIND YOU ENTER QUITE A DIFFERENT WORLD WHEN CONDUCTING HENRY PURCELL’S MUSIC?

Yes, in many ways – though the world is not unfamiliar and there are always similarities between great composers that can wed music, language and theatre so well.  I conducted Purcell’s two larger masterpieces, King Arthur and The Fairy Queen, here not that long ago.  The important difference is that Purcell’s music maintains a strong allegiance to the 17th century, where instrumental writing still tries to be ‘vocal’.  Only in 18th century were instruments given their true emancipation -- to convey emotion and feeling on their own.  Also, while the Italian influence was everywhere at that time, it came to Purcell less directly.  If one looks at Handel’s early writing, it is almost fully Italian.  But Purcell received Italian influences only as filtered through the French, and it shows in his ornaments, notes inégales, and in the low pitch that he specified (392).  Purcell perhaps fits more in the line starting with Monteverdi, then moving through Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier.  Of course, he added a compositional originality and daring of his own to all this. 

2. DIDO AND AENEAS IS ONE OF PURCELL’S MOST CELEBRATED COMPOSITIONS AND A PINNACLE OF ENGLISH OPERA.  WHAT MAKES IT SO UNIQUE COMPARED TO HIS OTHER MUSIC FOR THE STAGE AND THE WORK OF OTHER CONTEMPORARIES OF HIS TIME?

 Photos by Jan Gates

Photos by Jan Gates

It is Purcell’s only true opera.  King Arthur and The Fairy Queen are masques or ‘semi-operas’ since their texts do not really stand on their own without the music.  For example, to completely understand what transpires in The Fairy Queen, you would have to understand Shakespeare’s entire Midsummer’s Night Dream.  Here the selected texts must be fused with the music to create a dramatic effect for the listener.  In contrast, Dido and Aeneas is a self-contained entity; its story is fully understandable and coherent without the music. Purcell’s real genius was that he could make this opera so compact, yet so emotionally touching and musically inspiring.  He wedded all the disparate elements of the tragic, the comic, the primitive and the human in an opera that lasts under one hour.  Many French Baroque operas run on for three hours or more.

3. THERE IS NO ORIGINAL AUTOGRAPH FOR DIDO AND AENEAS, AND THERE HAVE BEEN MANY DIFFERENT PERFORMING EDITIONS OVER TIME.  DOES THIS CREATE ANY PROBLEM IN TERMS OF AUTHENTICITY?

It certainly does.  I originally looked at a variety of performing editions, and no one fully satisfied me.  So, I gathered together all the sources and constructed my own edition.  Much of my contribution concerns specific details on phrasing and ornamentation and, since there are so few markings to consult in the manuscript, much of this has to be done ‘by feel’.

4. THE WORK IS FUNDAMENTALLY A TRAGEDY YET IT HAS MANY LIGHTER MOMENTS TOO.  IS IT A GENUINE CHALLENGE TO BALANCE THESE FORCES?

Not at all: this is the 17th century way.  If you look at Monteverdi, he was almost religiously committed to having a tragic sequence after a comic one, then flirting with a more absurd or weird moment before returning to another tragic/ comic posture.  All the states are intertwined, as they are in Dido and Aeneas.  Characters and settings are just shoved around ‘fantastically’ by the gods; they do not have to exhibit the rational consistency of 18th century thinking and later. Sometimes I think that the depth of tragic feeling is enhanced precisely because of the comic foil.

5. ONE STRIKING FEATURE OF THE WORK IS THE DRAMATIC ROLE GIVEN TO DIDO, WHICH SOLOISTS FROM KIRSTEN FLAGSTAD AND JANET BAKER HAVE EXPLOITED FULLY, NOT LEAST IN THE CLOSING LAMENT.  IN YOUR EYES, WHAT ARE THE ESSENTIAL VOCAL REQUIREMENTS FOR THIS ROLE?

I do think that a mezzo-soprano is most appropriate.  And she should be absolutely comfortable with bel canto style.  She should sing beautifully, and not only beautifully, but with emotional depth and textural awareness.  But there is even more: she has to be prepared for Purcell’s ‘daring’, the fact that, in his writing, he seldom plays by the rules.  This is also true for the part players as well.  There are so many unprepared dissonances and unresolved dissonances to negotiate.  Thus, performing Dido asks a truly forbidding amount from the artist.

6. WHAT DIMENSIONS OF YOUR CURRENT PERFORMANCE DO YOU THINK ARE PARTICULARLY ‘AUTHENTIC’?

We are using the low pitch (392) that Purcell would have approved of, and our chorus of a dozen singers seems right.  Then, there are the ornaments and details in my performing edition which I hope improve authenticity.  But our departure from historical accuracy is in performing the score ‘one in a part’.  This has been tried before under the name of historically-informed practice but I currently think we need a full orchestra to be fully faithful.

7.  I AM VERY MUCH LOOKING FORWARD TO YOUR PERFORMANCE.  PERHAPS, IN CLOSING, YOU MIGHT LIKE TO MAKE A BRIEF COMMENT ON YOUR FIRST YEAR OF LIVING IN VANCOUVER.

It is interesting: perhaps there is less immediate cultural focus in Vancouver, but there is so much space, beauty and peace available here.  Montreal has a cultural intensity of course, and people get all worked up about all sorts of things in the arts, but perhaps you only want that with you daily for some part of your life. The relaxed quality of life here is actually closer to what one might find in Munich, where I grew up.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015