on 1 May 2001
Almost every recorded performance of Purcell's opera has yielded to the temptation to add colour to the witches' scenes by means of exaggerated cackles and squawks. If you think that that is the correct way to approach the piece, you may enjoy this recording (although it still has one major drawback - keep reading). Certainly, Dominique Visse goes over the top with more abandon than any of his rivals. Nevertheless, this way of performing Purcell's music renders his music more or less irrelevant for a large proportion of the total work, even though that very music, in fact, contains all of the malevolence and mischief required, as Purcell wrote it. The good points of this recording are a strong cast, an expert orchestra and pin-sharp recording. If Rene Jacobs deserves censure for his handling of the witches' scenes (and he does), he should receive corresponding praise for his solution to the ending of Act Two. This usually terminates very abruptly, because the music written for the ending is lost. Mr. Jacobs has selected pieces from The Fairy Queen to provide musical balance. While they are inevitably inauthentic, they are no more so than leaving a jarring gap, and they are undoubtedly well chosen. Unfortunately, after this success, the opening of Act Three is the real disappointment of this recording. After more cackling from the witches, the chorus, "Destruction's our delight", and the "Witches' Dance", immediately following, never achieve a constant tempo, but are dragged about in all directions. Actually performing a dance against such a ceaselessly varying tempo would be completely impossible. Confronted with the sublime music with which Purcell concluded his opera, few conductors dare to do other than play it completely straight; Mr. Jacobs is no exception. Lynne Dawson sings Dido's final recitative and the famous Lament very beautifully. Overall, this recording can be recommended only in parts. At its best, it is the equal of any performance on record, but its faults are as substantial as its merits.
While there may be objections to the colourful presentation of the witches, it does seem of a piece with a work that is a strange hybrid of tragedy and pantomime. It's as if Purcell has stitched together the most unlikely fabrics and made something that really works in its own terms, even if the drama is underscripted. The singing and playing is astonishingly good, and the title roles, taken by Lynne Dawson and Gerald Finley, are utterly beautiful. Admirers of these singers will only marvel at the sensitivity and beauty of tone they both have. The lament is taken at a slow tempo with a thoroughly authentic, bare string sound that offsets the vocal line in a way that makes it sound all too human. Before that, the hijinks of the witches are captured with devil-may-care bravado by Dominique Visse, who projects with superb character and venom, as does the Sorceress Susan Bickley - clearly they'd be more than a match for any sincerely beating heart! What impresses most is the vividness of the interpretation, as directed by Rene Jacobs. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment live up to their reputation and give superb profile to a vivid, clustered work where everything nevertheless inhabits its own space and style is never compromised. In this sense it forms a direct parallel to the joyous cover painting by Samacchini Orazio of the same subject from Virgil, uniting the noble and the rumbustious in the highest degree.