Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Purcell
LABELS: FRA Musica
WORKS: Dido and Aeneas
PERFORMER: Malena Ernman, Christopher Maltman, Judith van Wanroij, Hilary Summers, Fiona Shaw; Les Arts Florissants/William Christie; dir. Deborah Warner (Paris, 2008)
CATALOGUE NO: EDV 1610 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16: 9 picture format)

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Deborah Warner’s Opéra comique Dido is no statuesque ‘homage’ to Purcell year. This production probes the inherent darkness right from the outset, using light touches and almost pantomimic comedy to throw the advancing tragedy into sharp relief. 

Unfolded on three distinct levels – the main protagonists in period dress, the modern-day chorus to the sides lending commentary and occasional interaction, and a harder-to-swallow gaggle of girls from what could be the upmarket prep school to St Trinian’s – it couldn’t be further removed from the classical purity of Wayne McGregor’s recent version for the Royal Opera House.

The Sorceress and her entourage involving maniacal buttock-wiggling, an enthusiastic cocaine habit, and a final ‘exit stage left with V sign’ may also cause palpitations among some viewers. But despite any questionable decisions (does a prologue featuring Fiona Shaw accessing 20th-century poetic angst and hysteria seem anything other than stitched on?) there’s a truthfulness in Warner’s vision which compels, not least because the musical motor is William Christie and Les Arts Florissants.

Fleshing out the string parts with woodwinds in the French manner, and nourishing Purcell’s musical indebtedness to France, Christie creates a vibrant space where Christopher Maltman’s princely yet complex Aeneas can shine, and where Malena Ernman’s vulnerable Dido can explore her manifold insecurities (she gives deeply-anguished visual close-up too!).

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The sound is a touch boxy, but if you can avoid tripping over the hockey sticks, well worth pursuing. The bonus is of the director and the music director talking about the production. Paul Riley