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H+H To Turbocharge Deities with Bliss

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Detail of Dido (Nathaniel Dace-Holland)

Handel and Haydn artistic director Harry Christophers will bring Henry Purcell’s deeply moving Dido and Aeneas to Jordan Hall on Friday March 29th at 7:30pm and Sunday March 31st at 3pm, and to the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s Temple of Dendur on Saturday March 30th.

Thanks a $45,000 NEA grant, H+H could expand this concert beyond its typical production values, allowing them to bring in Aidan Lang as director of the staging enhancements, to secure a cast of unsurpassed talent, and to bring the event to the Metropolitan Museum. “We are deeply appreciative of the turbocharge that the NEA grant gave to our production,” said H+H president and CEO David Snead.

Purcell’s only true opera and one of the earliest-known English ones, Dido and Aeneas recounts the love of the Queen of Carthage for the Trojan hero and her despair when he abandons her. Lang, who currently is general director of the Seattle Opera and future leader of the Welsh National Opera, will direct “concert staging.” Lang and Christophers have worked together over many years, with Christophers particularly recalling “an amazing Monteverdi Ulisse in the Teatro San Carlos in Lisbon, Handel’s Hercules in Buxton and numerous ‘enhanced concert experiences’ of Handel oratorio for the Covent Garden Festival in London.”

Award-winning mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley and acclaimed baritone David McFerrin will take the title roles. Gramophone Award-winning bass-baritone Matthew Brook will appear as the Sorceress/Sailor, countertenor Reginald Mobley as the Spirit, soprano Sarah Yanovitch as Belinda, soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad as the Second Woman, soprano Margot Rood as the First Witch, and soprano Sarah Brailey as the Second Witch.

The lauded H+H Society Orchestra and Chorus will round out the program with more Purcell: the substantial Chaconne in G Minor, a set of richly harmonized dancelike variations; the lilting melody of “A New Irish Tune” in G Major; the contemplative “O Solitude,” performed by countertenor and cello; the sweet “New Scotch Tune” in G Major; and “Welcome to all the pleasures,” which Purcell wrote in honor of Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

Harry Christophers and Aidan Lang answered our questions:

FLE: Though of course it’s about so much more than these, the proof of a Dido and Aeneas pudding can be savored from two moments: the Sailors’ Chorus and Dido’s Lament. So will the sailors attempt cockney accents?

HC: Definitely not Cockney, more like a mixture of Cornwall and a Kent burr. The trick is to find a happy balance just the same as for the Witches’ numbers, where the result comes across as acting rather than bad pantomime.

AL: I couldn’t have put it better myself. As Harry says, the brief scene needs to avoid caricature but also make plain that the sailors are normal people, and do not form part of the ruling classes. So a subtle use of an accent is a useful signifier of this. The sailor’s scene is, of course, an ironic counterpart to the painful conflict between duty and love that informs both Dido and Aeneas. The sailors, on the other hand, have had a good time in Carthage, but their relationships with the local women is decidedly ‘in passing’.

Will Susan Bickley as Dido be given the breathing room and the diva chops to chew the chromatic scenery while stopping time in the emotionally shattering lamentation? Will the conductor be accompanying the singers?

HC: Sue is a consummate artist and has performed Dido many times for me – we read each other like a book. Yes, I will be there as “conductor”; however, in the rehearsals I will work with all the singers on the delivery of the text, emotion, stylization, and in performance we will all feed of each other. As a conductor in any drama one needs to have a sense of the whole rather than a sequence of short episodes.

And a propos scenery, how will the Jordan Hall Stage be transported to Carthage?

HC: There’s no scenery – this is an enhanced concert performance, where the music comes first. Over to you Aidan.

AL: The idea of an enhanced concert is to create what I like to call an ‘active’ engagement for the audience. Firstly, we can use the lighting rig in Jordan Hall to create a series of different looks appropriate to each scene. There is no scenery to illustrate the location, so lighting is used to create a mood, and also to close down to wherever on the stage a scene might be taking place. There will be at least three different acting areas around the orchestra., and by moving the action around, it keeps the audiences on their toes. The soloists will not use their scores, the chorus likewise in the scenes in which they play a dynamic role, as opposed to those moments when they comment on the action.

Why do I think of this show of Purcell as more emotionally direct and less stylized than Handel’s operas? So much more ‘opera serious’ than opera seria.

HC: Well, of course it’s compact; certain numbers are lost. The action is swift, it’s really only an episode of 24 hours. Like Handel it presumes that the audience is totally familiar with the myths, etc. This is probably the singular most difficult aspect today, when the audience will not be familiar with, say, the myth of Actaeon (in Dido) or the story of the centaur Nessus (in Handel’s Hercules). I don’t think you can really compare Purcell to Handel – suffice it to say that there’s no doubt Handel learnt a lot from Purcell. This is Purcell’s only opera, but even in this short work we see him concerned with the characters and digging into their personalities, something Handel was a master at. Similarity is again that often Handel was dealing with a day in the life – compare Dido (her final day) and Samson (his death day).

Aside from the Sailors’ Chorus — and will the guys be moving and mugging? — will all of the movement be stately?

AL: It will be presented in contemporary clothes, so I doubt that there will be stately movement! One of the reasons I prefer to do these enhanced concerts in modern dress is due to the presence of the orchestra on stage. While they are not part of the action per se, they are nevertheless always in sight for the audience. If we used any form of period costume, it would create a visual clash. Costuming requires a surrounding scenic picture as a context; without that context, we would run the danger of the singers looking like they have simply turned up in fancy dress.

And in the case of this Dido performance, we have the opportunity to subtly suggest that all is not well in Carthage. That in dallying in love with Aeneas, Dido has ignored matters closer to home, and that a section of her populace has now come to hate her. Hopefully this will become clear in the performance, but it is a fundamental point in the piece that would be almost impossible to make in period costuming in a concert context.

There are so many ways to sing and play this opera, from Jessye Norman’s swirling music video to the youthful Janet Baker’s restrained loveliness. How have your conceptions of it changed over the years? [And I bet that Barbara Bonney’s Dido under Christopher Hogwood might sound more up to date in performance practice.]

HC: Purcell is one of the Baroque composers who have really benefited from the early-music movement. I think everyone knew that Purcell was special right back to the days of Alfred Deller et al. but I don’t think people really knew why or more importantly really believed that his harmonic sense was for real. Today we have the courage to do what he says and run with it. His setting of the English language is second to none – we need to believe in his rhythms, not iron them out as was done in early editions of the Purcell Society and performances. His note values are there as a guideline to how he interprets the libretto. Period instruments have changed the whole sound world. Our continuo section can also make real sense of Purcell’s ground bass and figures and again run with their improvisation. Dido’s lament is not accompanied by a multi-string orchestra with excessive vibrato and over indulgence. Yes, there is rubato and the singer must have leeway, the tempo must not stagnate, singer and strings must interweave, leading and feeding each other at the same time. Yes, both Jessye Norman and Janet Baker were amazing, but ideas have changed and that’s what so exciting today. The result is leaner and cleaner performances, much more akin to the composer’s intentions but still maintaining real drama and emotion and allowing us to be constantly inventive.

It’s so perfect and so concentrated, but don’t you wish it were of concert length?

HC: This is precisely why it is such a masterpiece. The story and indeed the characters are brought into sharp focus. Everything is so concise, taut and expressive. Unfortunately all the main sources come from the late 18th century; we’re missing the prologue as well as some other dances and choruses. I remember listening to the radio years ago and hearing Pete Townshend of The Who talking about his rock opera Tommy and what inspired him; believe it or not it was hearing Dido – he loved the short scenes and thought if a classical composer can do that then I can do the same as a rock opera.

AL: I also think that Dido’s compactness is one of its virtues. No scene outstays its welcome, and there is a sense of the events of such a fateful day unfurling at breakneck speed.

Why does Purcell’s Indian Queen get done so much more rarely? It too has its moments

HC: I did Indian Queen for H+H a few years ago. I have also performed it in London’s Wigmore Hall and subsequently recorded it on the CORO label with The Sixteen. It is not an opera, but it is more than just incidental music to a play — the music is amazing. There is such a wealth of music by Purcell for someone whose life was cut all too short. I am in the process of performing (at Wigmore) and recording a cycle of programs of his music; each one is a sort of survey of Purcell’s expertise and talent — welcome odes, verse and full anthems, metaphysical songs, string overtures and fantasias, theater music from obscure plays like Theodosius and the odd catch (haven’t touched on the bawdy ones yet, but I will).

Tell us about the filler pieces. Britten loved the Chaconne, but treated it differently than H+H will, presumably.…

HC: Britten’s fabulous orchestral arrangement of the G minor Chacony trained modern listeners to think of it as a far bigger piece than it is; it’s remarkable in more ways than one. He wasn’t even 21 when he wrote it and also, remember, it lies alongside the viol fantasias in his autographed manuscript, so it needs to be treated in that vein, unlike his later, more famous chaconnes in Fairy Queen and King Arthur. Purcell’s string writing is simply extraordinary – viola players didn’t have it so good until Mozart! I’ve also included two little harpsichord tunes, one Scottish, one Irish. Everyone knows “Lilliburlero” — very famous Irish tune, and of course very apt, including the Scottish one which Haydn made a salon favorite. I’ve placed the song “O solitude” in the middle of the tune sandwich – alto and cello in solitude – Reggie and Guy contemplating the beauties of nature but at the end recognizing the possibility of emotional isolation if those solitary pleasures are overindulged, something that Guy and Reggie would never do.

The first half ends with an Ode to Saint Cecilia. I love the whole scenario behind this ode “Welcome to all the pleasures.” A group of “Gentlemen” formed the Musical Society in 1683; they elected six stewards each year and it was their task to organize a showcase concert on St. Cecilia’s Day (November 22nd). This Ode got the Society’s project off to a strong and affordable start. The budgets got bigger as time went on – it’s ever thus! There’s a ground bass to end all ground basses in this Ode – “Here the deities.” Sheer bliss!

Tickets for Dido and Aeneas and individual performances in the 2018-19 season may be purchased by calling 617.266.3605, visiting handelandhaydn.org or in person at 9 Harcourt Street in Boston (M-F 10a-6p). Student and group discounts are also available.

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