In which Dido doesn’t die

Oddly enough, given the post previous to this, Reiner Moritz’s essay in the booklet accompanying this recording of Cavalli’s La Didone brings up the Harnoncourt/Ponelle Monteverdi recordings as a precursor to what he sees as Bill Christie’s similar championing of Cavalli.  I guess the big difference is that only three of Monteverdi’s operas survive while we have 27 of Cavalli’s.  I think he may have a point though.  It seems to me that 17th century Italian opera works on an aesthetic which is very in tune with today.  The relative spareness and clarity of the music seems closer to Britten than to Verdi and the cynicism and explicit sexuality of the libretti closer to Anna Nicole than La Bohème.

1.cassandraThis La Didone was recorded at Caen in 2011 in a production by Clément Hervier-Léger.  There doesn’t seem to be any particular concept behind the production. The prologue and Act1 (set in Troy) are staged in front of a sort of abstracted battlement.  Acts 2 and 3 (Carthage) feature a gateway and a tower of scaffolding draped in cloth.  Costumes are simple dresses or long jackets and trousers evoking no particular time or place.  Props, too, are minimal though there’s a rather impressive stag, which is odd as it appears just after everybody on stage has been singing “cigale, cingale, cingale” at the top of their voices.  Fortunately the Personenregie and the acting are both rather good and it’s never boring, often affecting and, on occasions, very funny.

2.act2setThis version of the story involves an alternate lover, Iarba, king of somewhere in Africa, who is in love with Dido but is getting nowhere until Aeneas deserts Dido.  After a failed suicide attempt (by both of them!), they decide to get married and live happily ever after.  Before that here are some particularly effective scenes.  There’s a really touching duet between Coroebus and Cassandra in the first act and a very playful, sex scene between Iarba and three ladies of the court later on.  There are also lots of squabbling gods and goddesses who give us pretty much the entire back story to the Dido legend.

3.dido&aeneasThere are some really good performances.  Anna Bonitatibus is Dido.  She sings and acts with great intensity and has a lovely smoky lower register and clean high notes.  She’s well matched by the reliable Kresimir Spicer as Aeneas.  He’s a solid tenor with “many man looks (which is probably why he gets so many gigs with Opera Atelier).  There are two very good countertenors; Xavier Sabata, as the thwarted Iarba, and a very young sounding Terry Wey as Ascanio and Amore.  Among the rest of a large cast singing multiple roles I thought the stand out was Katherine Watson (Cassandra and other roles) who has a clear bright soprano, an energetic acting style and rather striking good looks.  But really, across a large cast there are no real weak links.  William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are in the pit and, since they pretty much own this music, are predictably excellent.

4.wtfVideo direction is by Olivier Simonnet.  It’s pretty much all close ups, which suits this production pretty well, and he doesn’t attempt to impose his vision on the stage director’s.  Technical quality is very decent. The picture source is HD but the rendering for DVD is normal DVD quality (probably to allow three hours of film on one disk) which works OK given that the camera is in close most of the time.  It’s true surround sound which does sound very good.  The stereo alternative is pretty decent too.  (This recording is also available on Blu-ray).  Documentation is minimal; a short essay by Moritz but no track listing and the only bonus on the disk is a cast gallery.  Subtitle options are English, French and German.

5.stagAll in all, a very worthwhile recording of a piece that deserves to be seen more often.


3 thoughts on “In which Dido doesn’t die

  1. Ah, yes, “La Didone”… I studied it as part of a class on early opera that I took at UCLA. I remember reading an essay about it from a feminist author, arguing that it makes the rewritten ending work (from a 17th century male point of view, at least) by making Dido’s character arc revolve around sin, punishment and redemption rather than tragic victimization. I.e. She sins by rejecting her “proper” love interest Iarba in favor of Aeneas, is punished when he abandons her, and is redeemed by Iarba in the end. Outdated gender politics aside, though (and “Il Giasone” is worse… father of your children or not, how can marrying the man who abandoned you and tried to have you murdered possibly be considered a happy ending?), I agree that Cavalli’s operas feel surprisingly modern! Anyone who thinks that opera was all piety, propriety and prettiness until the verismo era needs only glance at this opera or “Giasone” for a wakeup call!

    • Not just Cavalli. Look at Monteverdi’s Poppea. Surely one of the most cynical portrayals of power ever. I now have Cavalli’s Ercole Amante on order. I think I’m hooked! It also makes me wonder what 18th century operas would have been like if more of them had been written in lightly censored Venice rather than heavily censored Paris and Vienna.

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