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Profoundly Beautiful

William Christie's 'Dido and Aeneas'


Les Arts Florissants is thirty years old, and the group is presenting a celebratory concert series at London's Barbican Centre. The opening item was a performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (seen 7pm, Saturday 10 October 2009). Instead of performing the opera in a bill with other items, which is always a tricky task, William Christie and his group chose to perform it alone and in fact gave two performances during the evening.

The Handel and Purcell centenaries this year have been slightly awkward for some continental performing groups, as singing in English still remains something of a challenge. For Handel, one solution is to perform his Latin music, and his two Latin oratorios have had quite a few outings. For Purcell the solution is trickier. At least one other group has solved the problem by engaging Anglophone soloists, but for William Christie there are no easy solutions. He bravely chose to perform Purcell's iconic English opera with a largely French choir and a group of soloists whose native languages include Swedish, Dutch, French and Italian. Only Hilary Summers as the Sorceress and Ben Davies as the Sailor were native English speakers.

The performance that we saw at the Barbican was based on performances directed by Deborah Warner as a co-production between the Wiener Festwochen, the Opera Comique and Nederlandse Opera. Needless to say, no-one seems to have found the money to bring the entire show to London. There was no scenery, the cast wore very stylish evening clothes, but the opera was fully and imaginatively staged on an acting area created by having William Christie and the band at the back of the Barbican Hall's stage. The lack of scenery or stage effects scarcely mattered, such was the intensity and conviction of the playing from soloists and chorus alike. Having attended both the final rehearsal and the 7pm première, it was interesting to see how Christie and the group developed the performance to suit that Barbican stage.

Inevitably, Christie's Purcell had something of a French accent when it came to the sound of the music. Purcell was very influenced by his French contemporaries and Christie brought this out quite strongly. Another point was that the group seemed to be performing the work at French baroque pitch which meant that it was lower in pitch than we are usually used to hearing. Normally groups perform Purcell at English eighteenth century pitch, though in fact theatre pitch in Purcell's day was lower than this. The result meant that Dido seemed to sit slightly lower in Malena Ernman's voice than expected. Her Dido was a dark and serious character, intense and imperious. With long flowing blonde hair and a silver gown, the only light colouring on stage, she stood out brilliantly. Ernman's Dido rarely relaxed and her intensity was such that her suicide was no surprise. Her final aria, sung whilst laid down resting on Judith van Wanroij's Belinda, was very affecting. It wasn't greatly noble, in the line of such singers as Dame Janet Baker, but was deeply felt and profoundly moving.

As Aeneas, Luca Pisaroni looked and sounded very much the hero, but failed to really take the part by the scruff of the neck. A few extra short guitar solo movements had been introduced into the work, to provide extra dramatic moments. This meant that Pisaroni did get to have an intimate moment with Dido and the two were most affective. But Aeneas' solo utterances are only recitatives, though very fine ones. Pisaroni did not make enough of these, perhaps his stiffness was partly due to the care he was taking with the English text; I felt that a singer more used to singing in idiomatic English would have inflected them more and taken command a little more.

Judith van Wanroij was a lively and entirely delightful Belinda. Sometimes this role can seem purely a function of the plot rather than a genuine character. But van Wanroij created a believable and entirely charming personality. She sang the music intelligently, with a slightly fuller voice than some Belindas I have heard, which was nice. And in a cast who all impressed with the standard of their English diction, hers was truly impressive: when I first heard her I was unable to work out whether English was or wasn't her native tongue.

Lina Markeby was the second woman and fulfilled her role neatly and carefully, without ever creating a real personality the way that van Wanroij had. During the grove scene, Ernman had acted the role of Diana in dumb show during one of the guitar interludes, so that Markeby's recitation of the story of Diana and Acteon caused distress and fear in Ernman's constantly edgy Dido. This seemed the sort of directorial gloss which might have worked in a fully scenic staging, but was difficult to bring off in this half-way house version.

Hilary Summers was extremely amusing and very scary as the sorceress. She sang the role virtually straight, with little attempt to do the funny voices that some singers resort to. Instead she used her superb and impressive vocal and acting skills to give us a performance which paid due respect both to the seriousness of the part and to the way Purcell and Tate bring in comic grotesqueries. Summers' height was used to superb effect in that her two cohorts (first and second witch) Celine Ricci and Hanna Bayodi-Hirt were both far smaller than her. There were moments when I felt that Ricci and Bayodi-Hirt veered into over-acting, but these are roles where it is extremely difficult to strike the right balance. Generally Summers, Ricci and Bayodi-Hirt made a fine, comically scary trio and were well-balanced visually.

Marc Mauillon was the spirit, sung at baritone pitch though I rather prefer the role sung an octave higher. And Ben Davies was the sailor, thankfully eschewing all but a hint of the mummerset accent which is almost de rigeur in this role.

The chorus were their usual impressive selves, on stage all the time and constantly acting and reacting in a way which intensified the action. The result was to make clear that Dido and Aeneas's relations took place in an arena where they were constantly overlooked and commented on, something which helped to increase the intensity. Because Christie was placed at the harpsichord behind the singers, there were one or two moments of instability between chorus and band, but it is difficult to know how the difficulties might have been resolved given the severe limitations of the Barbican Hall.

Christie's Purcell was poised and, where necessary, incisive. He and the band brought a liveliness to the dance rhythms which made me regret that the production did not include any formal dancing, but then with so toe-tapping a performance we hardly needed it. That is not to say that the evening was an up tempo affair. Due weight and care was given to the more sombre moments, making the whole profoundly beautiful and very moving.

And the English? The standard of diction was on the whole impressive and, more importantly, expressive. Having taught us all to love French baroque music, Christie now seems to showing non-Anglophone singers how to perform Purcell in English; wonderful.

Copyright © 13 October 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK










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