Purcell Dido & Aeneas
Another opera, lasting less than an hour, which swings so effortlessly from gently concordant characterisation to the depths of human loss is hard to imagine. This is a work where common sense in recording markets doesn’t appear to matter: every year a luminary of the Baroque will tackle it, often as a rite of passage. Luminosity is indeed key to Emmanuelle Haïm’s highly evocative and atmospheric reading.One might have anticipated her questing mind and rigorous delving into the sinews of each line – such is her reputation in a short space of time – but I hadn’t expected such cordial restraint at key moments, as ‘Fear no danger’ or in Act 2, ‘In our deep vaulted cell’, which relieve tensions better kept in check for the set-pieces. In this way, Haïm is rather more discerning than René Jacobs in his luxuriantly realised if unremittingly rich palette. ‘Ah! Belinda’ is rightly deemed a crucial set piece and one which, if allowed to smoulder by implication, can lend from the outset a chilling prescience to proceedings. Here we come to the supremely controlled range of emotional response in Susan Graham’s Dido. She may not glide through with the radiant and filtered sorrow of a Baker or Troyanos (there is an occasional breathiness in the attack) but she is a truly flexible musician and one who brings a mesmerising degree of expressive nuance. Ian Bostridge’s Aeneas is only serviceable but then Aeneas is really a fairly wet and innocuous character for Purcell and his librettist: he tends either to be a blustering bore or a smarmy lounge lizard who leaves by the back door. Haïm has no truck with the somewhat statuesque exchange between the estranged lovers and, in any case, the sense of danger in the air is what compels the listener at this stage. Most of this is brought about by Felicity Palmer’s seasoned Sorceress which is menacing and vengeful. Haïm uses her instrumentalists, Le Concert d’Astrée, to excellent effect. One should mention the cameo role of David Daniels as the spirit ethereally accompanied by an organ – and there is an agreeable (mostly, but can be a touch chaotic), studied rough edge to some of the numbers which brings liveliness and ensures the avoidance of anything remotely saccharine. Graham’s ‘When I am laid in earth’ is masterfully gauged and there is no sentimental and funereal pacing in ‘With drooping wings’ but a palpable sense of shock at a demise so tragic and fateful. Indeed throughout there is a captivating sense of a roller-coaster driven less by frantic speeds than by an unstoppable sense of theatrical spontaneity (tempi seem especially well-judged) and deft detailing. I loved the succulent doublings of the recorders in the ritornelli, the light and heady choruses which boast real character in the ranks and the choice of continuo support, including some sparkling links with guitars (‘Here Actaeon met his fate/Pursued by his own hounds’ builds up with feverish imagery) and Haïm’s own shimmering contributions on the harpsichord add many delights.Some will doubtless miss an indigenous quality to the reading but the work is surely bigger than its domestic provenance. Strongly recommended.