1.1 The enduring popularity of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a work whose nature and origins remain obscure and are subject to ongoing scholarly debate, and whose imperfect surviving sources have left us with a frustratingly truncated theatrical piece, is witnessed by the plethora of recent recordings being released by leading early music ensembles. The present CD by René Jacobs and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, in fact, forms one part of a diptych that also includes their 1999 recording of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (Harmonia Mundi 901684), the precursor work that is believed to have inspired and helped shape Purcell’s masterpiece. In some sense, the two recordings should be heard in combination in order to provide a clearer sense of this striking and yet oddly anomalous form—what contemporaries labeled “masque, but which seems to modern ears very much like what we think of as opera.”
1.2 The problematic nature of the sources of Dido and Aeneas—no complete score has come down to us, and the earliest reliable source (now at GB-Ob) dates from more than a half-century after the composer’s death—is both a blessing and a curse to prospective performers. On the one hand, it allows a great deal of latitude for interpretation, ranging from such lesser issues as ornamentation, continuo realization and underlay, tempo, and the antiquation or modernization of certain harmonies, to major questions such as the assignment of parts and how to deal with the score’s various missing pieces. On the other hand, these opportunities for inventive reconsideration require a deft touch, and place a greater-than-average burden on the performer to be conversant with the work’s modalities and its potential pitfalls. Cast in this light, the present recording both seizes and misses significant opportunities, and when it does take chances or seek to chart new interpretive territory, it sometimes gets things just right, but at other times overplays its hand.
2.1 As the director and creative force behind this recording, René Jacobs makes choices that are at once bold and individualistic. He projects a sure sense of the overall dramatic tension of the work, while at the same time retaining its essential courtliness: the production ranges easily between the elevated exchanges and the graceful dances of the main characters, and the unhinged, libertine excesses of the witches. Under his direction, Lynne Dawson provides a studied, sensuous Dido—at times passionate, yet strangely wistful, as if deeply troubled by her sense of impending fate. Dominique Visse is particularly effective in the role of the First Witch, his cackling countertenor served up in a manner that is wickedly gruesome, yet not overdone. The instrumental ensemble is generally tight, and not out of control—the Overture, for example, is performed stylishly, with only moderate ornamentation.
2.2 Jacobss decisions regarding orchestration are striking and, for the most part, well placed. He achieves variety of timbre by allowing the two witches to exchange parts on the repeats in “But E’re We This Perform” in Act II, scene 1, and in the following scene he reorganizes “Thanks to These Lonesome Vales” to create a pair of half-verse exchanges between Belinda and the chorus on the first binary iteration, following it up with a binary instrumental dance to the same tune. The subsequent appearance of the sham Mercury is accompanied by organ, an instrumental sonority ideal for the pronouncement of a (supposed) god, which alternates tellingly with the bewildered Aeneas’s more conventional theorbo accompaniment. Less effective is the second half of Dido’s first-act aria “Ah! Belinda,” in which an overabundance of busy plucking from the continuo section proves an unwelcome distraction from the simplicity of this moving ground-bass lament. The final chorus, “With Drooping Wings,” however, is particularly affecting, beginning with a solo vocal quartet, the full chorus entering only at “Keep here … your watch.” The tutti configuration continues over the repeat and then drops back to the concertato texture again at the same point the second time through, an effect that, in its swelling and diminishing over the full course of the repeated passage, lends support to the larger architectural structure of this moving finale.
2.2 On the other hand, some of Jacobs’s choices are, on balance, less felicitous. He has granted himself free rein in the adding of repeats, and while this occasionally yields gratifying results (see my comment on the Overture in par. 3.2), it can also seem jarring and unnecessary, as in the return to “Go Revel, Ye Cupids” at the end of “To the Hills and the Vales” in Act I and “From the Ruin of Others” in Act III’s “Our Next Motion.”
2.3 Other performance decisions on this recording give similarly mixed results. In a number of instances, Jacobs relies on stark tempo changes to achieve a dramatic effect. This works well in the echo chorus “In Our Deep-vaulted Cell,” bringing out the movement’s harmonic texture and dynamic contrast, and in the “Jack of the Lanthorn” dance for the witches in Act III, which is perhaps the best example of a classic disordered “antimasque” dance in Purcell’s entire oeuvre. It is considerably less helpful, however, in the two witches’ choruses “Harm’s Our Delight” (in Act II) and “Destruction’s Our Delight” (in Act III), both of which drag on in an exasperating manner, the latter continually speeding up and slowing down like a poorly regulated automobile with water in the fuel line.
2.4 In a similar manner, Jacobs relies on sharp, accentuated delivery at times when the dramatic momentum needs a push. This technique, however, has its dangers: while the Act I rondo-duet and chorus “Fear No Danger” derives a compelling energy from the vocal emphasis and the strumming of guitars, the earlier choral admonition “Banish Sorrow, Banish Care” comes across as choppy and amateurish; similarly, the opening prelude for the witches in Act II assumes a kind of lurching gait whose comical Frankenstein’s-monster quality nearly undercuts the weighty malevolence of the Sorceress and her hags.
3.1 Given the great quantities of ink that have been spilled over Dido and Aeneas in the last twenty years or so, it behooves any performer nowadays to take into consideration the range of structural and performance questions raised by the incomplete state of the sources. Without delving too deeply into specific disagreements, I provide here a relatively comprehensive list of the essential issues that differentiate the “received” state of Dido, as it appears in most twentieth-century published scores, from what recent research and educated guesswork suggest the piece may have been intended to look like:
1. Nahum Tate (Purcell’s librettist) wrote an allegorical prologue, for which no music survives, obliquely praising the reigning monarch through the mythological characters of Phoebus and Venus and a range of lesser sea-gods, nymphs, and Arcadians.
2. According to the earliest known version of Tate’s libretto, Act II, scene 2 was intended to conclude with a chorus and dance for the triumphant witches, after Aeneas has made his decision to leave Carthage.
3. The same printed libretto calls for the insertion of two ground-bass dances for solo guitar (possibly improvised at the earliest performances) into the work, the first toward the end of Act I—where it plays a pivotal role in the progress of the story—and the second in the middle of Act II, scene 2.
4. The opening grave section of the C-minor Overture would most likely have been repeated, following contemporary practice, although no such repetition is indicated in any of the main surviving scores.
5. Several minor typographical problems in the libretto need to be corrected, regularized, and/or reconciled with the witness of the manuscript scores, using techniques appropriate to modern textual criticism.
6. A complex web of incidental evidence, unraveled in 1986 by Curtis Price and Irena Cholij, suggests that the part of the Sorceress may have been intended to be sung by a (male) bass.
To these I might add a seventh item, namely, that the intricate structures of allegorical meaning that some (myself included) have argued inform the creation and reception of seventeenth-century courtly literature and drama should be taken into account when staking out the overall dramatic tone and trajectory of the performance.
3.2 How, then, does the present recording measure up to these principles? Jacobs boldly chooses to take the repeat suggested in item 4, a decision that few others have ventured, and with much fanfare offers up his version of a reconstructed ending to Act II (item 2), following the lead of others such as William Christie. Beyond this, however, no new thinking on Dido is represented in this CD: the prologue and the crucial guitar dances are silently ignored, no concerted attempt is made to address the textual problems, and the part of the Sorceress is assigned, in accordance with longstanding practice, to a female soprano. What makes this multiple deficiency difficult to take is not so much a presumption that a given recording of Dido and Aeneas must be unfailingly true to a (necessarily uncertain) conception of how Purcell “intended” his work to appear, but that we have seen so many recordings of Dido in recent years, none of which has taken the trouble to attend to more than one or two of these considerations. Given the wealth of time and effort expended on recording this rich and wonderful work again and again, surely we might ask that those engaged in this task be held to a higher standard in terms of offering us carefully considered and well-informed performances that serve to advance our understanding of the piece, the nature of Restoration musical theater, and Purcell’s own musical and dramatic genius.
3.3 All in all, this disc constitutes a worthy, though not extraordinary, contribution to the growing body of Dido and Aeneas CDs. The recording betrays the occasional stray note, odd harmony, and wayward text underlay, but it also delivers strong individual performances and a collective sense of the dramatic that give an overall feeling of freshness and verve. While it fails to break substantive new ground, and while some of the director’s choices prove less successful than others, the very willingness to take both liberties and risks is in itself an encouraging indicator of where we stand with Dido at the turn of the twenty-first century, and where future recordings, if appropriately handled, could take us.
* Andrew R. Walkling (email@example.com) is Dean’s Lecturer in Art History, English, and Theatre at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is a historian of seventeenth-century England with an interest in the royal court, music, theatre, and court masque in the reigns of Charles II and James II.
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