England is finally getting out of her puritan revolution, her puritan sixty or eighty years and the Stuarts are back for a short while and finally the Glorious Revolution brings freedom in 1688, a freedom the English haven't had for a long time, especially after the plague had desertified London in 1665 and then the Great Fire had cleaned up the dirty plate that looked more like a trashcan or a giant hearse in 1666. Life can finally come back and be enjoyed. So they reopen the theatres and they start looking for new shows. They sure are pushed towards the French style of the Great Century of the Sun King by the Stuarts coming back from their golden exile in Paris. But that is not enough to give these new generations of artists an inspiration, or even a style. They go back to Marlowe and Shakespeare and they rediscover Dido and Aeneas, Venus and Adonis, and so many other Midsummer Night Dream that they may call the Fairy Queen. They also need a new form, a new genre to celebrate this newly reacquired liberty and they invent the semi-opera. Dido and Aeneas is one of the best in this line. The story comes from Ancient times and Vergil. Dido was also a heroin in Ovid's poetry and in a tragedy by Marlowe. Perfect indeed, and Purcell reinvents the Queen of Carthage. We can only have the music on this CD and these songs, arias and choruses are nothing but intermezzos in a big play intersperced with ballet pieces, operatic songs and other interludes. That is a semi-opera. Today we have more or less forgotten that there was a tragedy behind and that this genre was the invention of the opera in England, since England had never had operas. Purcell was the pioneer and Handel will be the great master after him who will finally reach the full form of the opera and give it a completely new dimension. Purcell is of course at his best in this music. Very clear voices constrasting and complementing one another marvellously though he has not yet understood what he could do with contraltos and countertenors. The female contralto is the sorceress and the male countertenor is some spirit and false messenger, in other words both are secondary characters. We will have to wait for Handel who will make the countertenor, or male alto the main hero in some of his operas like Saul for instance. Moreover the instruments are light, very light and splendidly full of genius and great art, the best mention having to be addressed to the archlute that is fingerpicked as if it were prefiguring the yet to come guitars, thus contrasting with the traditional use of the other strings with a bow. Purcell is a great composer that can bring together many instruments who remain, each one of them, perfectly free and particular, never getting merged into some kind of mash. This art is supposed to serve the drama, the tragedy. The escaping Aeneas arrives shipwrecked in Carthage. He accepts and uses Dido's love for him to reconstruct his fleet and try to fly away. Dido is naive and does not count on the sorceress's hatred for her and these infamous witches are going to plan Aeneas departure. And yet Dido will grant Aeneas his leave just before flinging herself into a pyre and dying in the flames. We can imagine the feelings at the time. The Puritans were finally forgotten and rejected and we could celebrate love affairs, ancient pagan fables, suicides, witches and sorceresses, spirits and other supernatural beings. And what's more we could enjoy it, dance and get thrilled with this story. Dances are even punctuating the tragedy, furies, sailors and witches don't hesitate to spin a couple of measures for our pleasure. And Dido as a mezzosoprano reminds us of the dramatic and tragic plot that lurks behind the beautiful front with a deep and grave lamenting coloration of her words and her voice contrasts so well with the egoistic and vain tenor that Aeneas is. Purcell managed to stage the revival of English music and drama with the saddest of all love drama. Irony of the artist in times of woe and joy at the same time. We must not forget how Queen Mary only reigned six years, ravaged and killed by some disease, uncurable in those days. Dido first produced at the very time of the Glorious Revolution will be reproduced some six years or so after Queen Mary's death, conveying thus some mourning, some dirge in remembrance of this deeply loved Queen.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University of Paris Dauphine & University of Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne
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