Graham wears her heart on her sleeve, and when it's broken, it breaks right in front...
Andrew McGregor 2004-01-27
It used to be a British thing. These days, though, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas seems to be a rite of passage for any period instrument outfit worth its salt, from William Christie and René Jacobs to the newest kid on the baroque block, Emmanuelle Haïm and her ensemble Le Concert d'Astrée.
So while you'd expect your Pinnocks, Parrotts and Hogwoods to have a certain Englishness about them, does this dynamic Frenchwoman bring a whiff of the Gallic to Purcell's proceedings? I think she does, from the sense of musical and emotional expressiveness to the flamboyant dotting of some of the dance rhythms. Haïm's continuo group plays a vital role in the vibrancy of the performance: six of em, from cello and viola da gamba to theorbo, archlute, baroque guitar and harpsichords, constantly changing colour in an organic tapestry that's continually evolving, improvised in response to the singers or at least that's how it feels. On a couple of occasions there's such an outbreak of concerted strumming, it's as though the stage has been invaded by Andrew Lawrence-King's Harp Consort.
The casting shows similar imagination. Susan Graham's Dido stands between the regal tragedy of Janet Baker and the more innocent heartbreak of some of the early music specialists who've taken the role. There's no British reserve in her performance, and no stiff-upper-lip trembling in that final, famous lament; Graham wears her heart on her sleeve, and when it's broken, it breaks right in front of us. It's a bigger voice than you might expect, but so intelligently used that the emotional range increases without our tragic heroine threatening to burst out of her corsets.
Aeneas has never been the most virile of figures in early opera, and Ian Bostridge succeeds in making this weak-willed character sound like the wimp you've probably always suspected he is. Camilla Tilling is a superb Belinda, touchingly standing by her lady, while casting Felicity Palmer as the Sorceress is an excellent idea, bringing malevolent maturity to a pivotal role that's sometimes camped up to disastrous effect. Luxurious cameos from David Daniels as the Spirit and Paul Agnew as a Sailor add to the lustre, and the chorus and orchestra are impressively quick on their feet, responding to Haïm's energetic direction with an explosive dynamism of their own.
Perhaps not a first choice for those who like their Didos coolly understated, but if you've always suspected that theres a more passionate side to Purcell, then here's a reading in which the tragedy unfolds with truly imaginative and emotional flair.