In its most ambitious chamber opera performance so far, the Boston Early Music Festival presented Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory on Saturday evening, November 27, and Sunday afternoon, November 28. This review is of Sunday’s performance.
Performed many times over the past few decades and available in some fifty-odd recordings, Purcell’s familiar work is actually a problematic musical torso in need of reconstruction. Its earliest documented performance took place in 1688 at a girls’ finishing school in Chelsea, but the opera may well have been performed earlier as a court masque for Charles II or James II. All we have to go on is the libretto printed for the school performance and the earliest surviving musical score, a manuscript copy dating from around 1775. In preparing this performance, musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs and stage director Gilbert Blin decided to restore the “opera” to its courtly masque context, with courtiers as attendants and participants. Since no music exists for the surviving prologue, they chose one of Purcell’s extended “Welcome Odes” for Charles II in its stead and added as Epilogue part of another Ode for James II. The printed libretto also specifies several dances for which no music has survived. Four dances were borrowed from other theatrical works by Purcell, while the two lively “gitter” dances drew on music by the court guitarist to Charles II. Stubbs completed the second act himself with a setting in Purcell’s style of a witches’ text for which no music has survived.
The elaborate Prologue, a French-style complex of short airs, choruses, and dances, featured a full cast of poets and harvesters as well as allegorical and mythological personages. Act I introduced the principal characters of the tragedy, based on a famous episode from Virgil’s Aeneid. Mezzo soprano Laura Pudwell was a resplendent Dido, especially moving in her ground-bass aria, “Peace and I are strangers grown,” while soprano Yulia Van Doren sparkled with Baroque agility as the ever optimistic Belinda. Nothing prepared us for the startling appearance at the beginning of the second act of tenor Jason McStoots as the sorceress, encased in an enormous black hoop skirt, out from which crawled a spirit later to appear as the false Mercury. The frantic singing and dancing of the devils in their Hallowe’en-candy costumes, wittily choreographed by Melinda Sullivan, provided a comic foil to the tragedy to follow. The Grove Scene centered on the second of the three ground-bass arias, one in each act, that represented emotional high points of the tragedy. Beautifully sung by soprano Teresa Wakim, the aria starts off in a straightforward manner, keeping pace with the repetitive accompaniment but gradually departs from its regular phrasing as the heartrending tale of Acteon is told, first in words, then in a mimed masque expertly danced by Caroline Copeland as Diana and Carlos Fittante as Acteon. The remainder of the act belongs to Aeneas, who enters as triumphant hunter only to resign himself abjectly to the false Mercury’s command to abandon Carthage and his beloved Dido. In depicting these changing moods, baritone Douglas Williams showed his mastery of Purcell’s expressive recitative style. The opening of Act III juxtaposes the “boozy” sailors and the triumphant witches, more comic relief before the angry confrontation between Dido and Aeneas. Dido’s dying lament has inspired a multitude of composers, but no setting is more moving than Purcell’s, with its anguished cry set against a relentless passacaglia bass. Most performances of Dido end with the cupids’ chorus “With drooping wings,” but O’Dette and Stubbs fittingly added a dance for the cupids, borrowing a minuet from the ode for James II, “Why are all the Muses mute,” which led directly into the second part of the ode, serving as Epilogue. After a first round of applause, we were treated to an “encore” in the form of a delightfully rustic song-and-dance number, “Harvest Home,” from Purcell’s King Arthur.
The placement on stage of the BEMF virtuoso chamber ensemble of harpsichord, two violins, viola, cello, and two lutes (alternating with guitars), with violinist Robert Mealy and lutenist Paul O’Dette in the lead, seemed perfectly in keeping with the courtly chamber setting. Expert singers and instrumentalists, imaginative staging, elegant Baroque dancing, stunning costumes — all the delights we have come to expect from Boston Early Music Festival productions — were on display in this wonderful performance.