The influence of the myth that Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was written for a girls’ school seems to have had a long lasting influence on performance practice resulting in presentations that are very short and uncomplicated. In reexamining the work for the Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie, Vincent Dumestre of Le Poème Harmonique and stage directors Cécile Roussat and Julien Lubek come to different conclusions and, accordingly, present the work quite differently. They argue that the work was written for the court of Charles II though quite possibly never performed there owing to the death of the king and the turmoil that followed. They further argue that existing score fragments show numerous places where dance movements should be inserted and that this indicates something akin to Lully’s tragédies lyriques, especially as Lully was much in vogue in London at the time.
The result is very interesting. There are maybe four significant dance movements included with the music taken mainly from other Purcell stage works. The result is a piece that comes in around 75 minutes; quite a bit longer than we are used to. The way the twenty piece band is used here and also in the main scenes is a bit different too. Dumestre has strong views on how lute and guitar were used in 16th and 17th century English music and the result is that quite a lot of the time it sounds like we are hearing a country dance or even flamenco. Tempi are sometimes extreme. The overture and opening scene are very slow but “To the hills and the vales” seems uncharacteristically brisk. There’s an unusual twist in the twenty person chorus too. The alto line is shared by mezzos and countertenors.
Roussat and Lubek choose to give the work a watery setting with an Arabian Nights feel. They use filmily clad barefoot female dancers, male acrobats and aerialists to create often very beautiful stage pictures that serve the music and the action well. Highlights include a squiddy sorceress (sung by a baritone!) and her fishy accomplices and a gorgeous ending with Dido disappearing into the ocean. There’s lots of eye candy and it really is quite riveting to watch.
The singing is a bit mixed. The main problem, to my ear, is the Dido of Vivica Genaux. I find her tone somewhat astringent and her vibrato quite intrusive at times. That said, the Lament is lovely. Ana Quintans is better as a very sweet toned Belinda and Henk Neven is a firm and suitably heroic Aeneas. Marc Mauillon doubling as the Sorceress and the Sailor is terrific.
Stéphane Vérité’s video direction is a bit annoying too. With a beautifully composed stage picture to work with a light touch is indicated but he’s determined, all too often, to be the star of the show. The final chorus is particularly bizarre as he chooses to film the orchestra and chorus (in the pit) rather than the stage. Technical quality is fine with a good quality picture on DVD and perfectly adequate Dolby surround sound. For some odd reason the stereo track is also Dolby encoded. There are no extras on the disk but the explanatory material in the booklet is very useful. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Japanese.
With a different Dido and a different video director I might be raving about this disk. So, while I still prefer the brilliant ROH recording I think this is a must see for the stimulating reinvention of the piece and the beautiful staging.