Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
Music: Henry Purcell
Libretto: Nahum Tate
Director: Jonathan Miller
Conductor: Michael Beattie
Dido – Tamara Mumford
Aeneas – David Adam Moore
Belinda – Joélle Harvey
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.
Until recently it was thought that Dido was first sung in the halls of a school for young ladies run by Josias Priest, a dancing master by profession. The latest research has suggested strongly that an earlier professional performance was in fact the premiere of the opera, and there were male performers involved, in all likelihood a bass witch. No accurate details have yet emerged as to the number of performers or what the continuo group consisted of. When the opera moved to the girls’ school, it was performed in a relatively small space. It has since had a checkered history. Singers of the title role have run the gamut from the iconic Wagnerian soprano, Kirsten Flagstad, to Emma Kirkby, her counterpart in the early music movement. Orchestras have ranged from standard symphony size to one-on-a-part chamber music performances. The trend has definitely been toward clear uncomplicated voices and smaller instrumental groups. Again the fundamental imperative is a heightened rhetoric.
Glimmerglass’s Dido was advertised as a staged concert version. The director was Jonathan Miller. Mr. Miller has the best eye of any director working in opera today. At Glimmerglass his first Traviata was the most beautiful production I have seen on the operatic stage. Utterly simple in concept it was lit like a Vermeer. His Fidelio some years later, also at Glimmerglass, dared to be dark, but it was darkness visible. It is well known among the singing tribe that he uses iconography of all sorts in the rehearsal process. The stage picture in this “Dido” was simple, a couple of benches, some flats arranged so that entrances and exits were possible. It was a strangely nonchalant affair. The chorus lolled about very effectively. No one can move groups around better than Jonathan Miller. The tone of it all I did not connect with. Sending the witches up takes away any menace, and I’m certain there is menace there. The Sorceress was sharply and resonantly sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo, He impersonated a kind of louche head of a teenage gang of Cockneys (the accent very well done). There was a certain amount of silent speaking on stage. The singing was vivid, the movements were lackadaisical. The Dido, Tamara Mumford, has a beautiful voice. It is rich. Notes become words with profound intuition. I can imagine no one singing the role better, but she was too often made to sit on a bench, and in some way that I don’t think has to do with her own natural power, seemed passive. Her great lament was much diminished by having her leave the stage in the midst of its final phrases. The Aeneas, David Adam Moore, sang with a beautiful covered tone, which was somehow always clear. He made much of one of the smallest major roles in all of opera, but his efforts were enervated by his being made to chat with the audience on the way out of the house after his final confrontation with Dido. Really superb was the Belinda of Joélle Harvey. Every word was crystal clear. (Were supertitles really necessary with young singers well schooled to sing English clearly?) She took time in the recits and made a role that can seem like an also-ran, into the most vivid portrayal on stage. I can see what Mr. Miller was after. For me it was all just a little too easy going, a little too much fun.
Michael Beattie strove mightily to make an orchestra that must play all styles of music into a quick-silver Baroque band. I would have preferred a smaller group, raised up to stage level so that the active principle was players listening, not following. There is superb precedent for this at Glimmerglass, Jane Glover’s “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” (Monteverdi, 1640) followed this method precisely. The players were active in the rhetoric, and the sense of listening was palpable in the house. Ms. Glover did not so much conduct as preside.
To sum up, a well sung intrepidly conducted performance with a concept that did not sort with me as the center of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The audience was entertained and responded very positively.