Deborah Warner’s entry point to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the, almost certainly apocryphal, story about it premiering in a girls’ boarding school. At various points in the action we get a chorus of schoolgirls in modernish uniforms commenting silently on the action. They are on stage during the overture, are seen in dance class during some of the dance music and queue up for the Sailor’s autograph. It’s quite touching and adds to the pathos of the basic, simple, tragic story. Warner also adds a prologue (the original is lost). In Warner’s version Fiona Shaw declaims, and acts out, poems by Ovid/Ted Hughes, TS Eliot and WB Yeats. These additions aside the piece is presented fairly straightforwardly in a sort of “stage 18th century” aesthetic. The witch scenes are quite well handled with Hilary Summers as a quite statuesque sorceress backed up by fairly diminutive (and, for witches, quite cute) Céline Ricci and Ana Quintans. Their first appearance is quite restrained but they go to town quite effectively in their second appearance.
Central to the piece though must be the relationship between the lovers. Here it’s intense from the very beginning with Malena Ernman as a dark toned and very anguished, even fierce, Dido seen to good effect in the final scene where the poison she has taken seems to blind her as she gropes for “thy hand, Belinda”. Chris Maltman is her foil as a more complex Aeneas than I have seen before. There’s a sense of more than a “Hero” who counts Dido among his conquests like another impressive boar. It makes the parting scene much more touching and painful. Both of them sing beautifully. In the other roles Judith van Wanroij is a mature sounding but well acted Belinda, Lina Markeby makes more than usual of the Second Woman and Damian Whiteley is a spritely Sailor, leading the little girls in a hornpipe lesson.
Musical direction is in the hands of William Christie who is about as good with Purcell as it gets. He’s got twenty members of Les Arts Florissants in the pit playing his reconstruction of the score in appropriately idiomatic fashion. The same company provides the very competent chorus.
This disk, recorded at the Opéra Comique in 2008, was the first from François Roussillon and Associates. The video direction is nicely balanced, the surround sound excellent and the picture True HD quality (Blu-ray reviewed). There are very good interviews with Warner (in English) and Christie (en français). There are French, English, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles though the diction throughout is good enough to render them unnecessary for anyone with a good command of English. There seems to have been an effort to minimize the use of plastic in the packaging, one result of which is a much higher quality than usual booklet which is pleasant to handle and read as well as having good content.
There are several good recordings of Dido and Aeneas around. If I were allowed just one I’d probably still opt for the Royal Opera House recording with Sarah Connolly’s incomparable Dido but I can also see myself returning to this recording many times with pleasure.