Purcell Dido and Aeneas (c1689)
Dido – Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Aeneas – James Newby (baritone)
Belinda – Gemma Summerfield (soprano)
Sorceress – Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano)
Second Woman – Nardus Williams (soprano)
Sailor – Nicky Spence (tenor)
Spirit – Tim Mead (countertenor)
First Witch – Helen Charleston (mezzo-soprano)
Second Witch – Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano)
La Nuova Musica / David Bates (harpsichord)
Royal Albert Hall, London
Tuesday 19 July 2022 (late night)
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou
After the existential confrontations of Vaughan Williams and Tippett earlier this evening, the more restrained yet no less acute expression of Dido and Aeneas came as a necessary tonic – with Purcell’s only through-composed work for the stage leaving a memorable impression.
The nature of its conception might remain as conjectural as the circumstances of its premiere, but there can be no doubt that this opera’s blazed a trail over the centuries that followed. Not the least of its attributes is a formal economy and a tensile dramatic trajectory whose ‘less is more’ aspect could scarcely be more evident. Neither is there any lack of expressive diversity in a score where elements of levity, even slapstick are aligned with a dramatic acuity which draws the three short but judiciously balanced acts into a cohesive and inevitable continuity.
Tonight’s concert performance manifestly played to these strengths. For the title-roles, Alice Coote brought gravitas and nobility of spirit to that of Dido, with James Newby an impulsive while knowingly fickle Aeneas. It was, however, Gemma Summerfield who stole the show as Belinda in rendering this most dramatically fluid of the opera’s parts with an emotional force, latterly foreboding, that was never less than captivating. Madeleine Shaw was larger than life if never overly parodic as the Sorceress, with Tim Mead a plangent Spirit whose intervention (from the organ console) seals the fate of the main protagonists. Credit, too, to Nicky Spence for an uproarious yet winning cameo as the Sailor in a scene whose Village People campery seemed entirely apposite in context and hence made this opera’s outcome the more affecting.
Directing La Nova Musica from the harpsichord, David Bates never lost sight of the dramatic continuity while ensuring an exemplary balance between chorus and ensemble. The former responded with a judicious combination of eloquence and discipline, whereas the emphasis on a continuo section of theorbos, harps and even guitar opened out but never obliterated the bracing string sonorities. Tempos were almost invariably well chosen, and though the final chorus was undeniably drawn out, this reinforced its postludial function to the work overall.
The past 58 seasons have since Dido and Aeneas given complete on four previous occasions, each time reflecting on how the opera was perceived at the time. Tonight’s performance was such a statement, and one as reaffirmed its greatness some 333 years after the first staging.