Tanglewood produced many of the summer’s memorable outings, but with pieces which somehow seem easier for a big Symphony to bring across to a big audience in the summer and in the country; music, like every other living thing in New England, can be highly seasonal and very much of its own place and niche. Many of the programs drew from the theater — ballet music and concert opera especially, or from the church — and extremely fine and satisfying performances of Debussy’s Danses: sacré et profane, l’Après-midi d’un faune, Jeux, Charles Dutoit’s of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë and Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, and one of Britten’s church parables Curlew River, to leave out many others, seem stick with me for a long time.
Most seem to agree musical historicism can go too far: imagine a Plymouth Plantation-style re-enactment of a concert of Baroque music with the audience coming and going, eating picnics in the gods, a musician wearing a modern watch dismissed as a “farb.” Luckily most musical historicists are more practical and flexible. For this concert the hall lights stayed up, which is a nice touch, even if electrics are not as pretty as the candle-lit halls of days past. Unfortunately, and I assume unintended by the musicians, the audience did come and go in between the first several songs, which not only rudely made the musicians wait but disrupted the flow of the program, and one woman, having missed three or four songs, came clumping down the wood-floored aisle in high-heels making an incredible noise. More cheerfully, Mr Scholl had the audience join in on the refrain of Purcell’s Man is for the Woman Made, which, according to Mr Scholl, is what Purcell intended when he originally composed it, for light relief in the theatre. And it did provide some short refreshing relief among the quite serious music in this program.
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.
The life and career of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), the colossal figure who dominates the history of English music, occurred at the chronological mid-point of the Baroque, a period whose leading and most distinguishing genre is opera. And yet, opera never took root as a native product in English cultural soil. For that it had to wait until Purcell’s distant successor, Benjamin Britten, appeared on the scene two hundred and fifty years later. Twenty years after Purcell’s death, Handel arrived with his succession of exotic opera singers: Italian divas and castrati who swooped in like birds of paradise warbling their outlandish roulades and then vanished. The taste for such entertainment lasted at the most 25 years. Meanwhile, Purcell wrote only one true opera, a tiny gem that was held to be the only crown jewel for centuries, the miniature Dido and Aeneas of 1689. (John Blow’s fine companion piece, Venus and Adonis of 1701, still has not established itself in the canon.) And it was written for a girls’ school run by a dancing master, or at least its first documented performance occurred in this context.
The holidays are over in my rural kingdom of music and art, and there were some blessed nights. I enjoyed particularly a cogent and real My Fair Lady played at the Capital Rep. This was a show that seemed like it belonged in the same universe with George Bernard Shaw. The speaking in particular was entirely believable. The Professor Higgins (Fred Rose) did not ingratiate. He wasn’t charming. He had all the negative aspects of the character connected with a vocal honesty that made us wonder what Eliza could possibly see in him. I felt the tension I think the creators intended. A tough, harsh character who sings. He was in every way the best performer of this part I have seen.
Although a certain mystery surrounds the origins and dramatic intentions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, it has become the most performed of Purcell’s stage works, not only for the obvious practical reasons (It is short and requires only a small cast, not all of whom have to possess the highest technical skill.), but because of its unique versatility, which is more than a chance artifact of transmission: Dido and Aeneas can be successfully performed with less than a full complement of dancing, stage action, costume, and sets—that is in a concert version or semi-staged, or in an elaborate staging in the taste of Purcell’s own time—or our own, if intelligently and reasonable executed, and short, far short of this year’s Glyndebourne production of The Fairy Queen. The Boston Early Music Festival’s chamber opera production of its model, John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (ca. 1682) gives a brilliant idea of what a performance of Dido and Aeneas might have been like in Purcell’s time, with its fluid interchange between the performers and the participating audience, both in song and in dance. Gilbert Blin’s production can serve as an ideal around which many worthy approximations can orbit. The opera’s economy, small cast, and the fact that there is no evidence for a public performance in Purcell’s lifetime favor a more intimate realization as a domestic masque.
Purcell’s perennial favorite Dido and Aeneas often receives stately, if not opulent productions, emphasizing the work’s elevated and tragic elements. Jonathan Miller takes a very different tack in this concert staging for Glimmerglass Opera’s 35th season. Severe gray walls suggest an almost institutional setting, and the youthful cast (even the principals are on the young side), casually dressed, look like something out of a Gap commercial. Color is used sparingly. This counterintuitive approach highlights the opera’s intense, hurtling emotions. The Queen Dido (silken-voiced mezzo Tamara Mumford), suffering unspoken love, is watched carefully by her courtiers, led by the lady-in-waiting Belinda (Joélle Harvey). Her secret revealed, they promptly egg her on to pursue the hero Aeneas. Cupid, they assure her, is “ever gentle, ever smiling.” What could go wrong?
The two great operas of the 17th century are Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. After the fundamental innovations Monteverdi formulated, opera was born as a heightened expression of the text. In a way the technique was like digital technology, a relatively small number of compositional units combined with great dexterity to express the gamut of human emotion. Voices and a small number of instruments, the continuo group, formed together a single speech. Even decades after Monteverdi, Purcell gives us a music which comes directly off the words. It heightens speech.