Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, while not the first English "opera," is certainly the first to fully stake a place on the operatic map. In its brief timescale it tells the most poignant of stories, ending with Dido's famous "Lament".
The present production comes from the Opéra Comique in Paris and includes a substantial acted Prologue ("Echo and Narcissus," Ted Hughes; "The Waste Land," T. S. Eliot; "He wishes for the cloths of Heaven," W. B. Yeats) performed by the wonderful Fiona Shaw.
Deborah Warner's production is set in a girls' school (Dido was commissioned by one such) . Quite a girl's school as the Sorceress (the formidable Hilary Summers) chain smokes while her attendants snort drugs. Evil si obviouly equated with temptation.
Seeing the drama enacted in the relatively neutral tones of a boarding school does allow us to focus on the musical elements. Malena Ernman is a fragile Dido, massively contrasted with Christopher Malrman's masculine Aeneas, As the two meet, Belinda's "Persue thy conquest, love" is enacted to an "audience" of cautiers around the central square of the stage. The final parting between Dido and Aeneas (only some 40 minutes or so later!) is for once convincingly done - he is ardent in his cries of "I'll stay, I'll stay" and it is Dido who basically throws him out - a final look back from Maltman seals the deal: a rare instance of this passage working convincingly. From there, it is the final trajectory to "When I am laid." the Lament. Interestingly, instead of dying from pure grief, Dido takes a poison that seemingly renders her blind (arsenic? the Elizabethans could render this from distillations of wolfsbane (aconyte), henbane and hellebore).
A stage drop of green represents the hills and vales of the second act's Grove - it is left to the music to transport us (and it does - how tender is both chorus and Les Arts Florissants in their caressing of Purcells' lines!).
Judith Van Wanroij is a deliciously light-voiced and dramatically present Belinda, but the whole performance relaly is dominated by the figure of Summers' Sorceress. and the chemistry she enjoys with her two brilliant witches, the sopranos Cécile Ricci and Ana Quintans: "But ere we this perform, we'll conjure for a storm" is brilliantly done (with three suspended acrobats representing that very storm). A word too for the chorus, superb throughotu but nowhere more touching than in the final, post-Lament "With dropping wings".
This performance was originally released on FRA Musica, which apparently included recorded interviews with Christie and Warner, both sadly absent in the Naxos incarnation.
This being the web and all, we are lucky to have the performance below to compare and contrast - a semi-staged concert performance directed by William Christie, with Stéphanie D'Oustrac as Dido (whom we met in this post) and Nicolas Rivencq as Aeneas.