Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Purcell
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Dido and Aeneas
PERFORMER: Catherine Bott, John Mark Ainsley, Emma Kirkby, Julianne Baird, David ThomasAcademy of Ancient Music & Chorus/Christopher Hogwood
CATALOGUE NO: 436 992-2 DDD
There was a time when no Decca opera recording came without an assortment of extraneous noises-off. But just as we thought we’d been purged of all that, along comes this new Dido, otherwise exemplary in so many ways, complete with fearsome thunder cracks (courtesy of the Drottningholm Opera House’s wind machine) and other bizarre aural treats, not least the (mis?)casting of the bass, David Thomas, as the Sorceress, and an excruciating, over-the-top pair of cackling witches. Silly voices excepted though, this set is a major achievement. Catherine Bott is an ideal Dido, combining the intense, text-centred delivery of the standard opera diva with the purity of the early music specialist, and a perfect foil to the fresh, eager Belinda of the ever youthful Emma Kirkby (herself a notable Dido). Aeneas, often cast with baritones out of all vocal proportion to the opera’s scale, finds a perfect exponent in John Mark Ainsley, who adopts a kind of mini-Heldentenor approach, tender and heroic in equal measure. Michael Chance puts in a welcome cameo appearance as Mercury. Hogwood’s alert direction is further proof of his deepening status not just as an industrious early music conductor but as a fine interpreter as well.

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Equally welcome, and without the producers’ folly marring the Dido, is Philip Pickett’s new Venus and Adonis, John Blow’s unjustly neglected mini-masterpiece which slightly predates Dido, less monumental in its implications but no less affecting. Catherine Bott again excels as Venus and Michael George contributes a dark (slightly too old?) Adonis, but the star is undoubtedly the Cupid of newcomer Libby Crabtree, whose mixture of sexual candour and childlike purity makes for a deeply disturbing cocktail. Antony Bye