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Purcell - Dido and Aeneas, Royal Opera House

3.7 out of 5 stars 15 ratings

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November 17, 2009
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description


The Royal Ballet and The Royal Opera join forces for Wayne McGregor's acclaimed fusion of music and movement, whose richly layered designs perfectly complement Purcell's telling of a classical tale of love thwarted by evil powers. With Sarah Connolly and Lucas Meachem in the title roles, Christopher Hogwood conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Filmed with High Definition cameras and recorded in true surround sound.

Press Reviews
"The wide open spaces and minimalist designs contrive a vast universe against which a very intimate human tragedy can be teased out, presented with an almost classical purity and restraint." (BBC Music Magazine)

"Belinda is unaffectedly played by Lucy Crowe, her bright tones and precise articulation all one could desire. Sarah Connolly, whether tormented by love or grief, is an equally ideal Dido." (Gramophone)

Cast
Sarah Connolly (Dido)
Lucas Meachem (Aeneas)
Lucy Crowe (Belinda)
Sara Fulgoni (Sorceress)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Christopher Hogwood

Production
Company: The Royal Opera
Stage Director: Wayne McGregor

Disc Information
Catalogue Number: OA1018D
Date of Performance: 2009
Running Time: 72 minutes
Sound: 5.1 Half DTS; PCM Stereo
Aspect Ratio: 16:9 Anamorphic
Subtitles: EN, FR, DE, ES, IT
Label: Opus Arte

Review

Dido and Aeneas has become fair game for choreographers. Mark Morris's celebrated 1989 staging put the singers in the pit, with dancers enacting the roles onstage, including the choreographer himself in the dual role of Dido and the Witch. Wayne McGregor takes a more traditional approach in this production, derived from a 2006 La Scala staging, and here seen in a 2009 Covent Garden incarnation (where it formed a double bill with Handel's Acis and Galatea, not included in this release). Here the singers take their conventional place onstage, moving with commendably economical gesture. McGregor clearly understands that their singing itself is their chief expressive instrument; nothing in the staging detracts from the communicative power of the vocal line.

The staging, needless to say, includes some actual choreography, which I found less convincing than the handling of the principals and chorus. McGregor uses a corps of Royal Ballet dancers, who are at work not only during the opera's dance interludes but in some of the sung portions, lurking in the background executing a kind of semaphore. They are obviously visitors from a different aesthetic realm: whereas the singers wear classical robes, the dancers sport modish unisex t-shirts and hot pants. The dances function not as part of the drama but as punctuation to the proceedings: in an interview included on the DVD, McGregor characterizes the dancing as "a graphic sketch of the [opera's] sound world," rather than part of the dramatic action. But to my eyes, the choreography is too busy and too spasmodic to reflect the lyricism of Purcell's music.

The dancing is the one eccentric component of an otherwise orthodox interpretation. Hildegard Bechtler's spare, handsome sets work well on video, often allowing film director Jonathan Haswell to frame the singers in close-up against a monochrome background -- an effective tactic. Rather than the Royal Opera Orchestra, the production uses the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Christopher Hogwood. His interpretation belongs to an earlier era of historically informed practice -- neat and well balanced but not lush and free in the manner of William Christie.

The one element that lifts the performance above the level of well-disciplined routine is the Dido of Sarah Connolly. Her mezzo is rich but never heavy, her phrasing direct and unmannered. This Dido does not "act the queen"; she is a queen, noble in sound and gesture. The video close-ups make it clear that Connolly is older than her Aeneas, Lucas Meachem, but rather than registering as a casting problem, the disparity in ages adds to the pathos of Dido's situation. The performance culminates in a reading of "When I am laid in earth" that is no less grand for its simplicity; the great aria emerges as if in a single breath.

Meachem is a comparatively callow presence -- an imbalance that may be built into the opera itself -- but he brings a fresh, firm baritone to the assignment. Lucy Crowe is a sprightly Belinda, her voice as pretty as her visage. Sara Fulgoni's mezzo tends to shudder under pressure, but this hint of ugliness is well suited to the Witch. It is in the nature of this opera, though, that all other roles should be overshadowed by the queen's, which here receives a distinguished interpretation. -- Opera News, Fred Cohn, February 2010

Purcell: Dido & Aeneas is directed by Wayne McGregor from Henry Purcell's tale of love versus the powers of evil. A British production in Milan, this is one of the more interesting ballets of modern times I have seen. With its supernatural bent, I am surprised we have not seen someone (hope I am not suggesting a bad idea here) license this and gut it out into a bad horror film, though the romance angle might stop that. Maybe fans of Twilight and New Moon should see this one, especially as it is sung in English as written. The PCM 5.1 mix is really good and extras include a cast gallery, illustrated synopsis and McGregor interview. -- Fulvue Drive-in, Nicholas Sheffo, November 2009

The first iconic opera in English is Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" of 1689. Just an hour long, it's a jewel of atmosphere and emotion. This Royal Opera House staging from 2009 stars English mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, the Dido of the moment. She sings one of music's greatest laments, "When I Am Laid in Earth," with grave, pure-toned beauty. The cast's fussy diction can be "veddy" British, while the ballet-accented production, can be both busy and empty. There is keen competition from another new "Dido" DVD. Led by William Christie at the Opéra Comique in Paris, it's a more intimate, lovely production, though it adds a pretentious prologue. The French DVD's Dido, Malena Ernman, sings well but grimaces too much; the French orchestra and chorus, though, are more vibrant than the British. It's a toss-up. -- The Star-Ledger, Bradley Bambarger, February 12, 2010

The richness of the musical and dramatic material in Henry Purcell's hour-long 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas has inspired directors and opera companies to try all kinds of alternative stagings. Rarely have any been as successful as this mix of ballet and opera conceived by director Wayne McGregor for La Scala in 2006, and recorded in high-definition at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in April. The music is superb, led by a fabulous performance by English mezzo Sarah Connolly as Dido. Christopher Hogwood crisply leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The action on stage is shadowed by 12 members of the Royal Ballet. Music and movement are always in perfect sync, both emotionally and physically. The sets are minimal, further putting the emphasis on the people. The main extra is a 10-minute interview with the engaging, 39-year-old McGregor, a rare example of a successful dance-opera crossover artist. -- Thestar.com, John Terauds, December 8, 2009

This performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, recorded at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in April, 2008, has some great things going for it. The almost-minimalist sets by Hildegard Bechtler have an asceticism about them that superbly mirror the opera's content: a bare stage at the start with an open rectangle in which colors change with moods; later a clump of autumnal trees; even later what appears to be a ruined ship; and finally, absolutely nothing for the final number, save, after Dido's farewell, impressionistic projections in royal blue, with images of a galloping horse. (This last effect is more subtle than what it sounds like.) Fotini Dimou's costumes are the same for the men and women of the chorus--long, full shirts over long, full skirts, mostly in browns and grays. The Sorceress and witches wear deep blue--and the two witches appear as conjoined twins, a nice, eerie effect. The Royal Ballet's resident choreographer, Wayne McGregor, who also acts as director, has devised dance sequences where Purcell calls for them: A combination of modern, stiff-armed, vogue-ing, and Michael Jacksonian poses incorporating long-armed, sweeping Classical ballet movements, they're beautifully performed. But they're also generic--triumph, furies, witches, sailors--all very similar. As filler, they're exquisite, but they don't shed light on or enact the drama. Musically, Christopher Hogwood leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with spring and energy, although he is highly sensitive in the introspective, tender, and tragic moments. His continuo section--harpsichord, theorbo, cello, and chamber organ--is impressive, and he can get a true rumble out of the whole band very effectively (the music before the Witches' Dance truly growls). His is not a dainty performance--there is plenty of vibrato from singers and players alike--and orchestra and chorus are as remarkably expressive as they are musically solid and certain. The cast varies. Lucas Meacham is an impressive Aeneas, catching the character's wavering loyalties well, but his singing style is more Verdian than Purcellian. Pumeza Matshikiza and Eri Nakamura look better than they sound as the Witches, and Sara Fulgoni's Sorceress is far from terrifying and not easy to understand. Anita Watson's Second Woman is poorly sung. Iestyn Davies' off-stage Spirit is fine, as is Ji-Min Park's Sailor. The two leading women are sensational. Lucy Crowe's Belinda, always alert to her mistress' feelings, looks lovely and sings with pure tone and impeccable diction. And enough praise cannot be heaped on Sarah Connolly, whose Dido is the most effective I've heard. The role's tessitura is indeed her absolute comfort zone: her singing is as natural as speech. Sad at the start, enchanted by her new-found love, startled and then resigned by his treachery, her performance grows and grows in stature. In a marvelously sensitive move, before "When I am laid in earth" we see blood coming from Dido's wrists, and Belinda takes her long dress and wraps her mistress' wounds in an attempt to stop the bleeding. The effect is stunning, but not as stunning as Connolly's rendition of the recit and aria themselves, during which she sinks very slowly to the floor and, at the end, dies. Small embellishments dot the aria but the flow is never broken. Belinda cradles her in her arms. The chorus, dimly lit, sings its final song and with Belinda departs one at a time as the stage goes dark, leaving a light only on Dido's dead body. These last few minutes are as powerful a time at the opera as we're bound to see. And so, not a perfect Dido, but necessary for Connolly's and Crowe's performances and for the overall musical preparation by Hogwood. Sound and picture are crystal-clear and subtitles are in all major European languages. A 10-minute interview with Wayne McGregor is somewhat enlightening; indeed, more-so than the dances themselves. As for other versions, a 1995 release on Kultur starring Maria Ewing is filmed and feels artificial; Mark Morris' production (on Image, no longer available) is danced. He stars as both Dido and the Sorceress, while Jennifer Lane sings the parts. It isn't the opera as we know it. -- Classics Today, Robert Levine, November 2009

With this newcomer there are now three interpretations of Dido and Aeneas currently available on DVD in the UK. This one benefits from an experienced Dido in Sarah Connolly, having made an excellent CD for Chandos in 2008, of which more later. It also features an experienced conductor in Christopher Hogwood who recorded the work in 1992 (Decca 4757195). In this 2009 production good use is made of the opening slow section of the Overture to show Dido gazing solemnly around, scantily dressed, spare and vulnerable. Then, in the fast section, attendants dress her sumptuously, so she becomes majestic and the two characteristics of Dido, strong queen and fragile woman are immediately apparent. These are then illustrated vocally by Sarah Connolly in her opening aria `Ah Belinda! I am prest with torment' (track 3). This is sung both with great authority of regal bearing and as a warm effusion of essential intimacy, with her younger sister Belinda hugging and comforting her. Video director Jonathan Haswell throughout this DVD points the individual interaction and emotion of the characters. The principals respond with fine acting as well as singing. Dido's glaring stare at the outset vividly illustrates the cloud which Belinda's arioso wishes to shake from her brow. Yet this is clearly a stage performance, directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor, with its own character too. There's a sombre, bare stone palace set and a spooky black figure glimpsed at the edge of its parapet at the beginning of Dido's `Ah Belinda!' who glides across that parapet during its closing ritornello. Who is it? Perhaps the Sorceress we don't see till Act 2.

The recitative is as well delivered here as in the Chandos CD. It too is flexible in tempo to match the variations of mood. That said, one modification to Purcell's original for me doesn't work. In the recitative following Dido's aria Belinda alone converses with Dido rather than Belinda and the Second Woman. This spoils the parallel of commander plus two attendants with Act 2, where it applies to the Sorceress and First and Second Witch though, as you'll see, McGregor has a response to that too. It also necessitates a rather clumsy first entry of the Second Woman suddenly to join Belinda in duet singing `Fear no danger to ensue' (tr. 5). Lucas Meachem makes a manly and fairly mature Aeneas, if not as mature as Connolly's Dido. His diction is also good, though his prefacing with a `K' the `W' of his opening word `When' in Act 1 and `What' in Act 3 is a bit unsettling. Lucy Crowe's Belinda urges Dido, `Pursue thy conquest, Love', in suitably bubbly fashion and the lovers caress. But, as in other recent recordings, an improvised Guitar Dance halts the momentum whereby the chorus `To the hills and the vales' can propel us on to The Triumphing Dance. Admittedly the Dance is short, enough for a brief embrace before Dido rushes out, but Hogwood then takes the chorus in rather staid and formal fashion, as are their dance steps. There's more swing in his 1992 recording through more emphasis on the first beat of the bar. The 2009 formality is McGregor's doing as he uses the chorus physically to `provide architectural structure to the piece'. Then they make way for the ballet, here the Royal Ballet, clad as gymnasts in the Triumphing Dance. At the end of this dance, atmospherically but incorrectly, comes a thunder-clap as it is the Sorceress who conjures a storm at the beginning of Act 2.

With rich voice, vibrato and gazing around with gleeful spite, Sarah Fulgoni is a somewhat hammy Sorceress but undeniably a presence as she should be in direct opposition to Dido. Like the Sorceress in silvery incandescent blue, her two attendant witches are rather fetching, but McGregor suggests the two are also one with a costume covering them both which suggests they're joined at the shoulder, forming quite a remarkable creature as the First Witch is a white soprano and the Second a black mezzo. But musically this is appropriate as it emphasises and arguably enhances the echoing manner of their duet `But 'ere we this perform' (tr. 10). The real echo of the witches' semi-chorus within the chorus `In our deep vaulted cell' (tr. 11) is well distanced but not the comparable echoing instrumental passages in the Echo Dance of Furies (tr. 12). The ballet gymnasts return for this but, as in all the following dances, looking the same as before. So while they gyrate expertly enough, you feel the dance element has become somewhat abstracted from the characterization.

Act 2 Scene 2 starts with the happiest episode of the opera as Belinda sings `Thanks to these lonesome vales' (tr. 13) introducing an idyllic pastoral scene in which the lovers and court are at their ease. Lucy Crowe sings the whole arioso with a pleasant, free-flowing manner before the chorus repeat. In the second Woman's aria `Oft she visits this lone mountain' (tr. 14), Anita Watson has to compete for our attention with a dancer on either side miming the action. This tale of destruction is seen to alarm Dido who has then to be comforted by Aeneas during the closing ritornello, making good use in stage action and on DVD of the space the music makes available. While Aeneas sings `Behold, upon my bending spear a monster's head stands bleeding' (tr. 15) we see neither spear nor head: instead he gives Dido a pendant for which McGregor has later uses. Neither do we see the Sorceress's Spirit, an ethereal Iestyn Davies, singing `Stay, Prince, and hear great Jove's command' (tr. 16) as this is a good opportunity to feature a solo dancer. Meachem conveys Aeneas's conflicting response of resolute princely duty and personal anguish well. And I like Hogwood's solution to the problem of how to end this scene in the same key as its opening: not by interpolating Purcell music from other scores but simply repeating the ritornello which opened the scene, now of sad cast as the court sinks down to sleep.

It's the drowsy sailors who have to be kicked awake at the start of Act 3 which puts more action into the Sailor's aria `Come away, fellow sailors' (tr.17). They aren't given the action of the Sailors' Dance (tr. 18) as it's those ballet gymnasts again, and yet again for the Witches' Dance (tr.20) where Hogwood relishes some bloodcurdling heavyweight continuo. In the second scene, albeit not separately marked in the booklet and DVD chapter headings, the low stone façade is neatly wheeled in to denote Dido's palace and Connolly sings `Your counsel all is urg'd in vain' (tr. 21) and the ensuing duet with Aeneas with an arresting combination of imperious passion and melting intimacy. Meachem's Aeneas is passionate too. The stage darkens at Dido's recitative which follows the duet, `But death, alas, I cannot shun' yet while the chorus philosophises `Great minds against themselves conspire' we are transfixed by the stage action. Connolly slashes her wrists with a knife which happens to be in the pendant McGregor earlier had Aeneas give her and we see the blood flow. This brings a graphic meaning to the recitative `Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me', delivered by Connolly with great dignity, as Belinda sees the wrists and tries to bind them. Dido's Lament itself (tr. 22) has a well-judged pace and poise as Connolly staggers, begins to fall and is eventually prostrate. In the closing ritornello Belinda raises her up to see if there are signs of life and try to revive her but weeps on realizing she cannot. I admire this realism: on DVD it's up close and personal, messy, even embarrassing, but very human. You feel yourself preferring to be the chorus retiring to general principles. They return to pay their respects, `With drooping wings ye Cupids come', The Royal Opera Extra Chorus sonorous and emotive, though I'd personally prefer more delicacy and tenderness as in the freer flowing, more intimate chorus in the Chandos 2008 CD. The repeat comes on instruments alone with spectral glimpses of a horse in back projection as the chorus departs.

This DVD has three extras. A synopsis which plays for 1:37 and consists of stills and a voice-over commentary where we learn the pendant Aeneas gives Dido is a token of love. A cast gallery is just stills and names without biographical detail. A substantial interview with McGregor plays for 10:11. He's attracted by and emphasises the simplicity and minimalism of the work, its universal themes of love, loss, death, longing and honour. He recognises the dances are interludes but also connect the scenes of the opera in physically expressing the emotional content of the adjacent action. But he goes beyond this in his interest in telling the narrative itself through the gestures and movements of the characters' bodies, so that without the words it might still be understood, moving towards the work becoming a ballet with song. This is more controversial but isn't done as a fully-fledged choreographic opera like the version by Sasha Waltz. Instead McGregor seeks to present `a graphic sketch of that sound world rather than a representation of the characterization of the piece', so those gymnast ballet dancers are intentionally at a more objective and abstract level.

Time to sum up. This is the best of the 3 DVD Didos currently available because in Sarah Connolly it has the finest Dido. And it comes in excellent surround sound, cleanly defined yet also smooth. But the uniform, analytic, under-characterized nature ballet presentation doesn't appeal to me. I prefer either of the other Dido DVDs (review) in this, that stage-directed by Peter Maniura (NVC Arts 50 51442 882223,) providing other visual activity, that choreographed by Sasha Waltz (Arthaus 101 311) making the whole work a dance extravaganza. And overall I find more musically satisfying Chandos Chaconne CHAN 0757, (review), which also features Connolly, Crowe, the same orchestra and in Gerald Finley arguably the finest Aeneas ever on disc, a more formidably regal Sorceress in Patricia Bardon and a fresher chorus. -- MusicWeb International, Michael Greenhalgh, January 2010


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