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OperaThe Berkshire Review in BostonThe Best of 2010

Best of 2010: Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Opera Production

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Carrie Henneman Shaw and Brenna Wells in the Boston Early Music Festival production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Photo André Costantini.
Carrie Henneman Shaw and Brenna Wells in the Boston Early Music Festival production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Photo André Costantini.

Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas
Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Opera Production
Saturday, November 27, 2010 at 8pm
Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 3pm
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Boston

Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Anna Watkins, Costume Designer
Melinda Sullivan, Choreographer

Laura Pudwell, Dido
Douglas Williams, Aeneas
Yulia Van Doren, Belinda
Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante, Featured Baroque Dancers

Teresa Wakim, Second Woman, Lady in Waiting for Dido
Brenna Wells, First Witch/First Enchantress
Carrie Henneman Shaw, Second Witch/Second Enchantress
Jose Lemos, Spirit in form of Mercury
Jason McStoots, Sorceress
Zachary Wilder, Sailor

Thea Lobo, Vocal Ensemble
Annie Rosen, Vocal Ensemble
Michael Barrett, Vocal Ensemble
Ulysses Thomas, Vocal Ensemble
John Proft, Vocal Ensemble
Olivier Laquerre, Vocal Ensemble

This is the third year of BEMF’s wonderful new institution of annual chamber opera performances. These not only help us get through the alternate years, when there is no main festival in June, nor any full opera production, they set a standard for authenticity and for the imaginative recreation of centuries-old practices and aesthetics in such a way that an audience of cultivated non-experts can enjoy the performance and walk away exhilarated. This was certainly the mood in late November last year, when BEMF turned to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. None of the other chamber operas produced so far is particularly obscure — not John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, nor Charpentier’s Actéon, nor Handel’s Acis and Galatea. On the contrary, they are central to the history of the genre, and they are performed, although not very often. This year’s offering, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, is the most popular pre-Mozart opera of all. It fills the needs of conservatories, young sopranos or mezzos, as well as ageing divas, who wish to apply their wisdom to the tragic Queen of Carthage. We have reviewed a number of modest, but very successful productions in the Review over the past year or so.

Nahum Tate’ s libretto tells the famous Virgilian story in such an economical way that it is actually elliptical. Beyond this, it is clear that the score that has come down to us has gaps, because a printed libretto circulated at the earliest documented performance, at Josiah Priest’s boarding school for young gentlewomen in Chelsea around 1687 or 1689, contains much that is not set in the music, and there must also have been a Prologue and Epilogue as well. The audience, of course, had no trouble following it, because it was so very well known to them. Most genteel boys and girls read the Fourth Book of Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin in school. The classic text was in fact considered so venerable, that Tate, in his earlier adaptation, Brutus of Alba, or the Enchanted Lovers, changed the title and  names of the characters at the advice of friends, so as not to seem presumptuous in adapting it from the great Roman poet. The authority of his model either compelled Tate or left him free to adapt the story freely, eliminating the role of the Olympian gods in favor of a wild Shakespearian witch, who influences the course of events through the intervention of one of her spirits, disguised as Mercury — not the god himself, as in Virgil. This Sorceress and her companions, the two witches, seem child-like in their crude malevolence, and, while it is possible to get modern audiences to take seriously their models, the weird sisters of Macbeth, modern directors incline towards the burlesque in their approach to these creatures, and M. Blin was no exception in this production. Tate looked back on the stage tradition of Macbeth, interrupted as it was by the Commonwealth ad Protectorate, and reinvented during the Restoration. William Davenant’s 1675 revision of Macbeth is key in this history. Tate himself adapted several Shakespeare plays, including his notorious King Lear with its happy ending. Who knows how the audiences took the sorceress in Purcell’s time? It is hard to imagine that it was free from the amusement we find in them today. The Drunken Sailor adds another bit of unvirgilian humor to the opera. In any case the printed libretti would have bridged the gap between the familiar classic and Tate’s alterations.

Moderns are often bemused by the fact that Dido and Aeneas was first performed at a girl’s school. Commentators often try to consider Dido and Aeneas in the context of the proprieties of a such an institution. (Andrew Walkling in his full and interesting program note mentions Dido’s self-destruction by sword and fire as a detail unsuitable for impressionable young females, but what about the drunken sailor?) Mr. Priest’s school, however, was quite a worldly one. He was himself one of the most prominent dancing-masters in London, and it is known that not only Dido and Aeneas, but also John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, which graced BEMF’s first chamber opera program, was performed there. There is no explicit evidence, but it is presumed that Priest arranged the dances for these productions, and the mere fact that they were performed at the school, where dancing played a central role in the curriculum, implies that dances were a major component of the performances. It is also thought that Priest choreographed other stage works of Purcell, notably his semi-operas, Dioclesian, The Fairy Queen and King Arthur. Furthermore, if he is the same person as the Joseph Priest who, with Luke Chanell, made the dances for Davenant’s Macbeth at Dorset Garden Theatre in 1673, the connections become interesting indeed. But this is all conjecture. The fact is that the Priest libretto indicates seventeen dance numbers, and Walkling is surely right to stress this.

This is entirely in the spirit of the BEMF production, which restores a good part of the dances, as well as the prologue and epilogue, which are likely to have been a part of the performance on the analogy of Venus and Adonis and other musical stage works of the time. The early scores are in any case fragmentary. Necessary scenes, like a conclusion to Act II, are missing and are usually restored in performance from other works of Purcell’s. BEMF, however, went all the way and reconstructed a Prologue and Epilogue, respectively from his “Welcome, Viceregent of the Mighty King” and “Why, why are all the Muses mute?”. The original has been thought to have been about twice as long as the surviving scores. The BEMF performance, then, filled in about half of that, presenting 90 minutes of rich domestic entertainment of the sort the nobility or royalty might have enjoyed in the 1680’s. While the Prologue is a courtly occasional piece and the dances more of an entertainment than the grave pathos of the opera. This production begins with pomp and splendor, and gravity and real tragedy emerge from it, as Dido approaches her end and her great final song, which is impossible to trivialize or distort. After this, the solemnity gave way to more cheerful rustic strains and high-spirited dances, which eventually bubbled over into bawdiness.

While Dido and Aeneas languished unperformed for many years until some stagings in the mid and late eighteenth century and then again, until the publication of the score in 1841 by the Musical Antiquarian Society, which made possible occasional performances throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. The performance by the Royal College of Music for the bicentenary of Purcell’s death in 1895, however, was a watershed of special significance. It is known that Ralph Vaughan Williams was present as a member of the chorus, and so was Gustav Holst. Both became passionate devotees of the opera and its composer throughout their lives, and both championed it in writing, speaking, and performance. The observation of the reviewer of the concert also presages twentieth century musical taste in his appreciation of the opera: “The music is of the kind that exhilarates like the air of a frosty morning in spring. It is manly and invigorating in its joyousness, tender and expressive in its sympathy, and the very antithesis of maudlin sentimentality and frenzied passion.” Here is already a pointed turning away from the luxuriance of Wagner and other late romantics in favor of the bracing spareness of modernism. Following the bicentenary performances became more frequent, usually in arranged scores with added winds and brass, until authenticity began to assert itself in the 1930s. Hence, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is in a way a twentieth century work. Without the full restoration of its appendages and missing parts, it is a stark tragedy of simple structure and few characters, a theatre work very much in harmony with twentieth century aesthetics. (The 2009 Royal Opera House production by Wayne McGregor has been widely praised for just this quality. The fact that it is often performed in concert or semi-staged version brings this out even further, and few opera companies have BEMF’s resources in the re-creation of the original style of dancing. Beginning around the time of the bicentenary, Dido and Aeneas was regarded with special reverence as the first opera as we know it set to an English libretto. Recent scholarship has called that into question, and the BEMF production, although based on nothing we haven’t always known, drives the point home. This is not “opera as we know it,” unless we’re thinking of Ariadne auf Naxos.

 

Laura Pudwell performs the role of Dido along with the BEMF Chamber Ensemble in the Boston Early Music Festival production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Photo André Costantini.
Laura Pudwell performs the role of Dido along with the BEMF Chamber Ensemble in the Boston Early Music Festival production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Photo André Costantini.

This production luxuriated in dance and in splendid costumes, which, in early modern theatre did much of the work of scenery. As I have pointed out, the tragic marrow of the work emerged slowly from this splendor and wit, came to a climax, and finally retreated. Laura Pudwell as Dido was resplendent in her regal costume, expressing her anxiety with the classic repertory of gestures that were common currency in Restoration tragedy. The formality of her appearance and acting immediately set up a Verfremdungseffekt of a sort, since this is quite unlike what we are used to today. However, this distancing is entirely in the spirit of Purcell’s time. Today, of course, one might associate this treatment of Dido with the drag opera which has become so popular. (But the real drag was to come later in this production.) Ms. Pudwell’s voice was sheer beauty with its resonant depth and polished, golden surface, and her handling of phrasing and ornament was equally felicitous.

Yulia Van Doren performs the role of Belinda in the Boston Early Music Festival production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Photo André Costantini.
Yulia Van Doren performs the role of Belinda in the Boston Early Music Festival production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Photo André Costantini.

Yulia van Doren, who sang Belinda, Dido’s first lady-in-waiting, began to make a mark in period opera a few years ago, when she was still in conservatory, and she has developed into one of the finest voices and artists, and certainly one of the most appealing. Her dignified and sympathetic Belinda was no disappointment. Douglas Williams brought an attractive bright voice to Aeneas, and he was especially meticulous and refined in his ornamentation. He made no attempt to redeem his character with latent stoicism or heroics. His Aeneas was basically a gent who valued correctness and had no options available to behave better. Beyond that Williams did splendidly in bringing out the distress Aeneas, who fully understood the pain he was causing his beloved.

Jason McStoots appeared in broad skirts as the sorceress, going absolutely the limit in campiness. Some will object to his demi-falsetto distortion of his voice and the flamboyance of his acting, but it was very amusing, especially early on. It did seem a bit relentless in subsequent scenes however. The two witches affected same wild distortions, but perhaps with a little more variety.

The vocal ensemble were, as usual, of superb quality, and the orchestra, led by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, played most eloquently. Placed on stage right, they were able to follow the singers’ most subtle nuances and to provide leadership with a kind of intimate contact only possible in such a situation and with a group of instrumentalists of this exalted caliber. Precision of ensemble acquires a totally new meaning in a BEMF opera, and no conductor can quite achieve the same togetherness from within.

This performance was a joy in all its aspects from beginning to end. I believe that Gilbert Blin was on the right track in his production, and I was thoroughly convinced and delighted by his execution. The previous year I mildly faulted BEMF’s staging of Handel’s Acis and Galatea for being too crowded and busy. That was not at all the case in Dido, since the queen’s entourage was all-important, and there was no room on stage for the interactive audience, which was so successful in the first year’s double bill and less so in the Handel.

I hope that BEMF will repeat and record Dido. I know it won’t appear at the Festival this coming June, because there will be a revival of Acis and Galatea. I’m very much looking forward to this, since I’m sure the production will be much refined and improved, and as much of a delight as this Dido and Aeneas was.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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