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A rare concert performance of Berlioz's chef d'oeuvre
on 27 August 2012
I was at first inclined to award this recording four stars on account of some reservations about the singing but it is performed with such conviction and so much else is superlative that I relented. Nonetheless, it is a central fact that good as the principals are, they are not necessarily a match for some illustrious predecessors. Michelle de Young, in particular, impassioned and involved as she is, does not have a truly distinguished, "queenly" voice of the kind Janet Baker and Josephine Veasey brought to this role and her vibrato tends to become obtrusive at times. Occasionally her French vowels become too dark and occluded where clarity and incisiveness are required; nonetheless, she really comes alive in the dramatic recitative "Dieux immortels" just before her lament "Je vais mourir" where she rises to the moment despite the occasional passing uncertainty in pitch. Her timbre is perhaps too similar to that of the Cassandre, Petra Lang, who doesn't have a very full, steady or even attractive tone but is very expressive and clearly sings her heart out. Besides, Davis's Cassandre in the 1969 studio recording, Berit Lindholm, wasn't flawless either.
Ben Heppner almost makes light of the vicious tessitura of the role of Aeneas and as such ironically strips it of some of the heroic striving that Jon Vickers' more effortful delivery brought to it but as singing his account is terrific and he too comes alive in the scene where the ghosts exhort him to abandon Dido and head for Rome.
Some of the secondary roles are especially well sung, in particular Peter Mattei's elegant and incisive Chorèbe and Sara Mingardo's Anna - indeed the latter, with her full, dark steady production, sounds like a potential Dido herself if she could manage the tessitura. Both Kenneth Tarver and Toby Spence make much of their beautiful tenor solos. Stephen Milling's Narbal is imposing but a bit lumpy compared with Gwynne Howell in the superb extracts conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson with a cast headed by Janet Baker.
The choir sounds a bit small but they are energetic. There is a case for naming the LSO as the stars of this recording; their playing is everything you could wish. Davis's conducting is taut and dramatic in the extreme - and we don't hear too much of his vocalising which has become such an intrusive mannerism in recent years.
Was there ever a more varied and inventive orchestrator than Berlioz? Davis makes us aware of how there is always something new and enticing going on in instrumentally under the vocal lines and the orchestral set pieces are stunning. The sound is first rate with excellent balance and clarity and hardly any audience noise. I retain the impression that the best music is in the second half of an opera. The Trojan first part is necessarily more jagged and violent apart from interludes such as the lovely duet between Cassandre and Chorèbe whereas the Carthage action contains more which is lyrical or reflective. The opera is sometimes divided in two to be presented in two-hourly instalments over two evenings but it's great to have the whole thing in it entire sweep.
My ultimate allegiance is still with the older recording but I am glad to have both and this LSO Live set is excellent both artistically and as a bargain.