PURCELL Dido and Aeneas & • Geraint Evans, cond; Kirsten Flagstad (Dido); Thomas Hemsley (Aeneas); Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Belinda/Second Woman/Spirit); Arda Mandikian (Sorceress); Sheila Rex (First Witch); Anna Pollak (Second WitchRead more class="ARIAL12">); David Lloyd (Sailor); Mermaid O & Singers • EMI 09691, mono (64:00 Text and Translation)
It was Bernard Miles, actor, manager, and close friend of Kirsten Flagstad, who urged her in 1951 to take the starring role in a revival of this opera. Twenty wildly successful performances were given, and four attempts by EMI were made to record it live. However, the new, extremely small theater where it was being performed defeated those efforts. (One performance was broadcast, and only recently issued on Walhall 0186.) A studio recording was finally released in 1953. There were several changes to the cast, most notably in the case of 63-year-old Maggie Teyte, who was considered insufficiently fresh for the part of Belinda. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was brought in for that and for the Spirit, which had formerly been given to Murray Dickie, and for the Second Woman, which had been sung by Ann Dowdall. This leads to one instance, “Fear no danger to ensue,” where as Belinda and the Second Woman, Schwarzkopf is singing a duet with herself, thanks to the magic of tape recording. John Steane’s informative liner notes ignore this, and blandly skip over the fact that the new casting was “suggested” by Schwarzkopf’s husband and the recording’s autocratic producer, Walter Legge.
The results have been debated for years. Some find Schwarzkopf too mannered, a Brahms and Wolf recitalist doing Purcell, etc. I agree that her initial solo, “Shake the cloud from off your brow,” lacks the forthrightness required by the text. But not everything requires the trumpet of victory, and elsewhere she is clear and unmannered, with excellent enunciation (apart from a tendency to render z as s). When the words and music call for a quick succession of emotional responses, as in the stanza beginning with “A tale so strong and full of woe,” she is very good indeed.
Though the debate over Schwarzkopf and the grand manner will not likely cease anytime soon, there can be no question that Flagstad is in fine form. She brings credible dramatic insight to the tragic stature of Dido, especially in her Lament, “When I am laid in earth.” Despite several portamentos, the voice is noticeably more slender than in her Wagnerian assumptions, and capable of delicacy. This applies to both versions of the Lament, by the way, for EMI has reasonably included her 1948 recording as well. The voice has marginally more thrust in the earlier rendition, though both are excellent. Hers is a credible assumption, ultimately austere and moving.
Among the other performers, Arda Mandikian is a standout, firm of tone and commanding in manner in “Wayward sisters, you that fright.” She never takes the Sorceress over the top, and much the same can be said of Rex and Pollak as the witches. Hemsley made his debut as Aeneas in the live production, but he’s ill suited to the part. Not that Nahum Tate’s otherwise superlative libretto gives him much that is heroic, but Hemsley’s singing is affected and overly concerned with lyrical minutiae.
Geraint Evans leads a smartly phrased, expertly paced reading. The Mermaid Singers and Orchestra put their small but expert forces to enthusiastic use. The remastered analog sound is clear, if slightly dry, with minimal tape hiss. This one gets an enthusiastic recommendation.