Purcell: Dido & Aeneas

Vivica Genaux Dido, Henk Neven Aeneas, Ana Quintans Belinda, Marc Mauillon Sorceress/Sailor, Le Poème Harmonique, Chœur Accentus /Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie, Vincent Dumestre
80′ (1 DVD)
Alpha 706

Dido-on-Sea’? Or ‘Dido and Aeneas go to the Circus’? Whatever construct is put on this conception it will hardly be sufficient to convey just how bizarre it is. Where to start? Well, as is not uncommon in these benighted days, the stage directions are largely ignored. At no time are we ever in Dido’s Palace (act 1), a Cave (act 2/1), or a Grove (act 2/2). Only in act 3 do we have some semblance of place, where we see the prow of a ship. Otherwise we are located on a rocky seashore, which makes something of a nonsense of Belinda’s ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’, among much else. The dances are largely given over to a troupe of acrobats, whose performances both aerial and earthbound are described in an astonishingly pretentious – and in places inaccurate – note by Vincent Dumestre as being ‘sometimes the protagonist’s projections’, while at other times ‘allegories of the characters described in the songs of the chorus’ (which performs throughout off-stage). Most notably, in the Cave scene they are slithery, writhing sea creatures, the accessories of a (male) Sorceress who is … wait for it … an octopus with a rather nasty bump protruding from the back of her/his head. Really. Otherwise the costumes in what is a quasi-period production are odd – Dido wears striped pantaloons under her gown, while Aeneas looks like Trapper John, the fur round his neck hardly compatible with his location in North African desert territory.

It would be pleasing to report that it was a relief to turn to the music. But it is no such thing. Dumestre has seen fit not only to flesh out the scoring with an utterly anachronistic continuo group including a harp, guitars, theorbos, but also – and equally anachronistically – an orchestra that includes recorders, oboes and bassoons. The effect of the plucked arpeggiations and pretty ornaments in such numbers as the Ritornelle that opens act 2 is about as inimical to Purcellian style as it is possible to imagine. While there is certainly room for improvisation in the Dido dances, Dumestre’s owes far more to his mistaken belief in the influence of Lully on the score. As Richard Luckett pointed out all those years ago in his notes for the famous Andrew Parrott Chandos recording, the musical accent of the opera is – aside from the overture and a few dances – not at all Lullian, but cast in Purcell’s wholly distinctive style. It is this aspect of Dido that Dumestre and his performers have fatally missed. Not one of the cast display real comprehension of either the linguistic or musical syntax. Vivica Genaux’s Dido is especially disappointing, the voice marred by obtrusive vibrato and even pitch problems, while at times taking on a curiously plummy quality. Her Dutch Aeneas is better, but ultimately, well, the Aeneas we all love to despise and his inability to articulate ornamental phrases cleanly is another disadvantage he shares with the Belinda.

Vincent Dumestre is a director for whom I have great respect for the many outstanding things he has done on record, not least the marvellous DVDs of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. But I fear here he is way out of his comfort territory. And I say that not because he is French; it is perfectly possible for non-English musicians to give convincing, moving performances of Purcell’s operatic masterpiece, witness that given last year in Bruges by the Italian Fabio Bonizzoni with a Spanish Dido. The film emanates from performances given at the Rouen Opera in 2014.

Brian Robins