Henry Purcell – Dido & Aeneas (Part 2)

June 11, 2009

Purcell, Dido & Aeneas. Guillemette Laurens, Jill Feldman, Philippe Cantor. Les Arts florissants. Willam Christie. Harmonia Mundi, 905173. 1986.

Score of the arioso-lament from the online Walter Icking Music Archive, copyright Les Editions Outremontaises 2006.

Work-in-progress… more random thoughts on the instrumental, vocal and production aspects of D&A. The more I consider the work, the happier I am about the decision to use Yvonne Kenny and Antony Walker. Kenny will bring so much gravitas and soul to the part (brilliant in Streetcar) and Walker (brilliant in David & Jonathon) so much instrumental colour and immaculate use of tempi. I can scarcely add anything to the excellent overview provided by Jean-Francois Labie in his liner notes for the Christie recording, but blogging is after all the art of excessively, superfluous personal rambling…

* Approach. Surely one starts with the climactic final arioso/lament/chorus and ‘works backwards’. From that, one surely works on those aspects of Dido, Aeneas and Belinda leading to that denouement. Unlike other operas, this is so unbelievably short and brief, everything has to be compressed and distilled. From the very first aria, it’s off-and-away. Once that ‘line’ is established, then it’s a matter of adding the contrasting elements – the sailors, witches. Ultimately there’s just D & A, with Belinda off to one side and the rest is relief, sometimes comic sometimes scarey, from the utter tragedy and waste of it all.

* Instrumentation and instrumental writing. For me one of the most haunting moments of the Wm Christie recording is the use of the violone to introduce the ground bass, between the end of the arioso and the lament. No harpsichord, no viol, just this brooding  call of death from the depths. The Christie band by the way is made up of 4 premiers violons, three seconds violons, two violas, two celli, a bass gamba, violone and maestro Christie on harpsichords. No theorbo or lute. Vital in the mix are the inner parts for second violins and violas; they illuminate Purcell’s harmonic movement in a particularly strong way (especially – again – in the final scene, but for example also in the Witches’ scene). First violins and bass set up the harmonic parameters of course, but the inner sound and contrasting rhythms drive things forward. I suspect Christie uses strong gamba-violone colour in the Second Woman’s aria in II:2 to convey the agitato underpinning the references to hunting Diana/Actaeon.  Antony Walker and the orchestra will have their work cut out for them in the ever-changing rhythms and character of Act III’s Witches’ Dance; I imagine once he’s got through this okay, he knows everyone’s adequately ‘prepped’, alert and keen, for the final scene (and I must revisit Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actaeon). In the last nine bars of the Lament where instruments alone feature, I sense much has been in the opening statement of the gamba, with other strings following in the fugal motif. I particularly like Christie’s use of rallentando in the closing bars of the entire work – it is very much a ‘final statement’, “closing-off” the work in its entirety, that’s to say, the work doesn’t peter out to nothing at all.

 * Vocal ornament. In working from the arioso-lament backwards, I notice soprano, Guillemette Laurens, sticks to the ornaments of the score almost entirely. Given it’s a Christie recording, you expect complete dedication to the score as writ. You never get the sense that the ornamentation is present of course, it’s so transparent and intrinsic. The use of an A natural in bar 3 of the lament is a marvellous revelation to me having grown up with the recording by Los Angeles, I think having stuck to the A flat of the previous bar.

Ornament is again rich but elegant in Belinda’s ‘Thanks to these lovesome vales’, adding layers of depth to her character, it seems to me, contributing to her perceptiveness and intelligence, a true confidante and no dull servant. I like the way the Chorus, in reprising this particular aria, uses slurs to underline their agreement of her sentiments.

* Vocal characterisation. In the Christie recording, much is made of the ‘piratical’ accents in the echo aria. The singers are ‘actively’ involved; this is not a bunch of reflections by a sober chorus. The sneeryness is chilling. Piratical accents are strong in Act III and all this will have resonance with the current Sydney audience against the backdrop of the current film mania (and Opera Australia’s own amazing productions of Gilbert & Sullivan). Good luck to the sorceress and witches – that knife-edge balance between clear enunciation, characterisation and emphasis in the indvidual syllables and words must he devilish: to carry this off must be no easy thing!

* Characterisation. The ABC Book Show on television this week featured cads and bounders in literature and this got my thinking about Aeneas-as-bounder. Though for me he’s more a cad. Bounder for me is blithe decamping-with-intent; caddery is closer to the Valmont of Liaisons Dangereuses. Discussion among the literateurs ranged around the deliberateness of the ‘caddery’, the propensity for planning-and-scheming, the cruelty of a Valmont, outward civilised-inwardly not, etc. Is he just not-that-much-into-her? Purcell and his colleagues at court must have seen their fair share of ambition vs honour. The pyschology of the rejection and Aeneas’ sudden change of thought -and Dido’s resolve at the point of rejection to end her life – is a masterstroke. Unfortunately it’s all too much over in a flash and melts into the ‘Great minds’ Chorus – perhaps a live performance can play with the silences and gaps between the soloists and this chorus for fuller dramatic effect.

More as I go. I realise I’ve entirely overlooked Aeneas so far…

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