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Fanfare Magazine: 39:2 (11-12/2015) 
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Reviewer:  Barry Brenesal


A new Dido and Aeneas faces the unenviable challenge of equaling a range of truly distinguished recordings in the catalog. What could yet another version offer in the way of something distinctive that those already present lack? And could the artists chosen for the important roles match the finest available? This album brings nothing new or distinctive to the table, though much of what it does is truly accomplished.

That begins with the performers chosen for three of the four main roles. Rachel Lloyd’s Dido is a dignified assumption, her dark mezzo lending itself well to the character’s melancholy. Her voice is agile and capable of varied dynamics. She does not bring much variety of color and expressiveness to the part—which, admittedly, is emotionally limited, but still varied, as both Emma Kirkby and Sarah Connolly demonstrated in their respective recordings. The admiring “How soft in peace, and yet how fierce in arms” would seem to demand a brighter tone with a hint of infatuation, but receives nothing like that here; and the celebrated “When I am laid in earth,” while excellently sung, is just too restrained, given all that has passed before.

Robert Davies is a fine Aeneas, one of the best on records. He takes his cues from the words and music, creating a forceful, forthright king who is truly embittered by the faux-gods’ commands. His dark baritone admirably seconds his impersonation; and only the amorous suggestiveness of “those did Venus’s huntsman tear” is missed in his portrayal.

Credit, too, goes to Elin Manahan Thomas. Her voice which I described as “winsome and delicate” in Sullivan’s The Beauty Stone (Chandos 10794; Fanfare 37:4) is much in evidence. Though she tends to focus almost entirely on vowels in “Thanks to these lonesome vales,” her “Shake the clouds” and “Haste, haste to town” are brightly pert and well articulated.

I would that I could say as much for Roderick Morris as the Sorceress. I can understand the motivation behind choosing a countertenor for this role: to convey something strange and unworldly, much as Rimsky-Korsakov did in specifying a high tenor for the Magician in his Golden Cockerel. But while Morris is clearly alert to the theatrical dimension of his part, his unchanging tonal color and only moderate enunciation work against his vision.

The two solo witches bring up a point I’ve touched upon briefly in the past: exaggerated voices for effect. I’m not a fan of it, to say the least, unless the composer specifically requests it (and not much of a fan even then). I figure that if a performer wishes to get across humor or characterization, it can be conveyed through the challenge of interpreting words and music. When Eloise Irving and Jenni Harper are simply singing, as they down in the two-part chasse “But ere we this perform,” they display great agility and attractively varied tone. When they adopt nasal voices and lengthy slurs, they’re just unpleasant to listen to. Much the same can be said of the Drunken Sailor’s song, “Come away, fellow sailors,” where Miles Golding uses an unfinished, raucous voice to sound jaunty and authentic, but comes off sounding forced and wince-worthy instead. (He may well be the first violinist of the same name mentioned in the orchestral lineup, in which case the quality of his voice presumably is not assumed.)

Dido, as is generally known, comes down to us in a problematic edition. The oldest surviving score dates from roughly 1750, or more than half a century after the work was premiered. Its prolog is lost, as are a number of dances from the surviving acts. One particular omission is strongly felt: a witches’ chorus and succeeding Groves Dance, meant to end the second act, tying it emotionally back to its beginning. Monks takes a purist’s solution to the problem that is the second act’s conclusion, which is to say, no solution at all. The set’s enclosed libretto indicates a repeat of Belinda’s song with chorus, “Thanks to these lonesome vales” as the act II finale, but it’s not actually included on the disc; presumably you’re expected to slot it in yourself. It would make a poor finale in any case, but certainly far better than allowing the act to conclude in mid-air as it does here, with Aeneas’s bitter recitative. Personally, I favor the suggestion of Margaret Laurie and Thurston Dart in their vocal edition, that music from one of Purcell’s other theatrical works be imported for that purpose. This would be no profaning of the composer’s musical temple, as the score during the Baroque period was an ever-flexible thing, added to and subtracted from as situations permitted.

While I feel Monks has done less than well in this respect, his conducting is disciplined, pointed, and sympathetic to his singers. He uses a wide range of tempos, and never pushes. His phrasing is flexible, and I’ve seldom heard the final chorus, “With drooping wings,” performed with such pathos. The Armonico Consort itself is a relatively small ensemble: six orchestral musicians, the singers I’ve mentioned, and eight chorus members (including Harper, Irving, and Morris). They nevertheless make a big sound when needed, and that’s what counts.

A less restrained Dido, a better Sorceress, unexaggerated voices and a variety of selections to help tide over the holes left in the score—especially the second act conclusion—would raise this recording up to the front rank. As it is, I still prefer several other versions, especially that conducted by Elizabeth Kenny and Steven Devine with Sarah Connolly, Gerald Finley, and Lucy Crowe heading up a remarkable cast (Chaconne 0757). They find elegant, stylistically appropriate ways to deal with the missing dances and act II finale, while Connolly is among the most sensitive of operatic interpreters on the world stage today. Also in my first tier are Haïm (now on EMI Classics 66821) and Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi 901683). Each of these performances seriously examines and attempts to repair the faulty state of the surviving score; each succeeds in its own way, and possesses a uniformly first-rate cast.


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