Notes and Editorial Reviews
One of my dreams, cherished ever since I first heard Dame Janet Baker as Dido, is that Covent Garden, the grandest of English opera houses, should one day stage the greatest of English operas. ... Whatever the historical background of the piece being written for performance in a girls' school, and whatever its compression in length, the depth of the inspiration clearly relates to the scale of the epic story on which it is based. Sir Bernard Miles worked on that, when he presented Kirsten Flagstad as Dido at the original Mermaid Theatre, and Walter Legge went on to record the result with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Belinda (HMV mono ALPIO26, 1/53—nla). This new recording unashamedly takes a similar stance, and whatever the dangers—enormities,
maybe, for paid-up authenticists—I applaud it. It makes me hope that before long we might really have Dido at Covent Garden with the most magnificent of today's sopranos as the heroine.
This whole recording centres round Jessye Norman, and understandably so. In comments she has made on the role she likens Dido as a tragic figure to Medea, Ariadne or Phaedra, and goes on to suggest that "the emotions of Purcell's Dido are not, in my mind, that different from the same character in The Trojans of Berlioz". The confrontation between Dido and Aeneas before his departure may be much more compressed in Purcell, but "this moment in these two very different operas is for me equally telling and thrilling to sing". Raymond Leppard puts the point just as positively. Of Purcell's opera he says; "It's like Tristan und Isolde in a pint pot. Everything lasts no time at all, but in 20 bars you've accomplished more than the Tristan experience, or Isolde in her Liebesiod. More variety and quite as intense."
Comparing this latest version conducted by Leppard with the one he recorded for Erato in the mid-seventies, one finds that to a degree he has deferred to the star quality of Jessye Norman. The most controversial moment of all comes right at the start of Dido's first aria, "Ali Belinda", which brings not just heavy underlining of words but a big ralleniando on the very first phrase. There and in other places, particularly in the sharply dramatic rendering of recitatives, Jessye Norman lives the words and times them always to bring out the impact of the emotions. ...
With a less positive, less magnetic, less imaginative artist than Jessye Norman the result might have seemed over-inflected, too heavy, and I confess that I still prefer Dame Janet's two assumptions, partiularly the first, more spontaneous one, but with Leppard's crisply rhythmic style sharpened, even in comparison with his Erato performance, the warm expressiveness is put in a fresh, disciplined setting. ... Jessye Norman's formidable vocal control gives a complete sense of security up to the ringing top Gs of Dido's Lament "Remember me" or down to the whispered pianissimo of the introductory recitative. Dame Janet with her withdrawn half-tones may convey more of Dido's vulnerability, but the involvement of the tragedy here is inescapable too.
Leppard's speeds are not always conventional. As before, some of the early choruses, such as "When Monarchs unite", are unusually slow but dotted rhythms are more crisply pointed, and in various ways he has made his edition more direct, simpler and straighter than before. The Sorceress's big solo, "Wayward sisters"—with Patricia Kern in the part as on the Erato, using conventionally sinister expression—is faster and more regular in rhythm, and this time for the choruses a distinction is drawn between what Leppard describes as goodies and baddies, with male altos replacing women to represent the baddies. Even more striking is the casting of the rich-toned American male alto, Derek Ragin, making a welcome first recording, as the Spirit. With extra reverberation adding an otherworldly quality the result is chillingly atmospheric.
When Dido is cast from strength, it is good that opposite her Aeneas emerges as a comparably powerful and positive character, even though Purcell gave him so relatively little to sing. Thomas Allen in a finely detailed performance, beautifully even of tone, provides just the foil needed in complementing Jessye Norman's dramatic expressiveness in recitatives. The exchanges are never formal but always involving, and even the absurdly brisk, final ding-dong of "Away, away" and "No, no, I'll slay" is for once timed convincingly. Marie McLaughlin makes an excellent choice as Belinda, not so characterful as Felicity Palmer was for Leppard before, but purer-toned and beautifully contrasted with Jessye Norman, yet not sounding thin at all. Patrick Power as the Sailor, like the chorus supporting him, adopts a Mummerset accent with g's dropped from 'ing' endings, of which there are many. It is on the verge of sounding overdone, but then makes Philip Langridge's Sailor on the previous Leppard set sound very prim by comparsion, better this time.
Other supporting singers are good too, and though the recording here allows you to identify individual singers in the chorus, the smaller scale on the whole is a help, as is the extra clarity of the orchestral accompaniment with harpsichord continuo more sharply defined, cleaner in texture. The recording has plenty of air around it, so that the problem of balancing big-scale singing against chamber scale of accompaniment is nicely solved—just as one day I trust it will be at Covent Garden.
My only serious complaint is that the Echo chorus is so distant you can hardly hear it. ...With Jessye Norman and Raymond Leppard the grandeur implied in one of Purcell's supreme inspirations is richly and satisfyingly conveyed, and for that and much else I am deeply grateful.
-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone [4/1986]
Works on This Recording
Dido and Aeneas, Z 626 by Henry Purcell
Derek Lee Ragin (Countertenor),
Marie McLaughlin (Mezzo Soprano),
Patricia Kern (Soprano),
Elisabeth Gale (Soprano),
Patrick Power (Tenor),
Jessye Norman (Soprano),
Thomas Allen (Baritone),
Della Jones (Mezzo Soprano),
Helen Walker (Soprano)
English Chamber Orchestra
Written: 1689; England
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