Dido and Aeneas

Helen Wallace reviews a performance of Purcell's opera at the Aldeburgh Easter Weekend

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Gusts of whirling snow gave way to a lurid coral-pink sunset glowing through the windows of Orford church on Easter Saturday. Clouds of breath rose in the aisles; this was the chilly, atmospheric setting for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, presented by the Britten-Pears Baroque Ensemble and Britten-Pears Young Artists. It was the centrepiece of a weekend devoted to the relationship between Purcell and Britten, including concerts by La Nuova Musica, EXAUDI and Aldeburgh Voices.

Director-conductor Christian Curnyn had prepared and choreographed the elegant semi-staging with such care he was able to withdraw into the audience, leaving the performance in the zestful hands of leader Simone Slattery, and an alert group of young singers. The ensemble was beautifully balanced and paced throughout, from the fizzing dances to the veiled laments, while the chorus was tonally well-blended.

Soprano Robyn Allegra Parton gave Belinda an appropriately bright openness, in marked contrast to soprano Faustine de Monès’s more intense, but sometimes shadowy, Dido, whose words were too often obscure. Baritone Benjamin Appl had commanding presence as Aeneas, while mezzo-soprano Debi Wong was an enjoyably nasty Sorceress, joined in the marvellous cackling episodes by the richly-hued voices of Felicity Smith and Solange Merdinian.

Without percussion or sound effects, the ‘horrid music’ of the storm lost some of its bite, though the sailors, led by tenor François-Olivier Jean, provided a nicely comic interlude.

De Monès found the necessary tone of imperious dignity for her final tragic scenes, and her famous lament, wound in its rich shroud of strings, had a piercing poignancy in the church’s gathering gloom. Curnyn proved once again how this precious jewel of an opera can glitter afresh with each new generation. 

Aldeburgh’s Britten Centenary celebrations continue on 11 May with The Canticles, featuring Ian Bostridge, also at the Brighton Festival on 9 May.

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