“Dido & Aeneas” review: Sweet musical treat

The Ensemble gives a rich, tasty performance of Henry Purcell's operatic masterpiece


Damn chocolates! We might have had another decade or two of Henry Purcell, had he not indulged in recently unloaded chocolates from a ship’s hold, in 1695. Note that there are other theories about the great English Baroque composer’s demise, and this hypothesis may be full of nougat, but it makes a good story.

One of Great Britain’s grand masters of composition, Purcell was revered by Benjamin Britten, who arranged several of Purcell’s works and, most famously, wove one of Purcell’s incidental themes into his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Purcell’s themes (most notably “Dido’s Lament”) appear in film scores, most recently croaked by Timothy Spall in the recent film Mr. Turner.

The Ensemble performed Dido & Aeneas in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

The Ensemble performed Dido & Aeneas in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

At any rate, he did perish in his mid-thirties and bequeathed to us a luxurious mosaic of music: odes, primarily to St. Cecilia, anthems, catches/rounds (many quite obscenely composed for his Men’s Club in London), semi-operas and the lone opera, Dido in Aeneas, the first great English opera, which we heard performed by The Ensemble of Oregon on Sunday afternoon, January 24, at First Christian Church in Portland. (The Portland vocal ensemble, composed of singers from some of the city’s top choirs, also performed it in Eugene the previous night.) Sometimes called the “first English opera” (energetically debated now in favor of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and a few others), Dido is a wealth of Purcellian invention, a true child of its time.

Restoration and Resurgence

That Purcell was sui generis as a British composer is evident, but as to how and why, one needs to look at the political events and climate of the times. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell had seized power from Parliament and executed Charles I; women were required to be severely clothed, Irish Catholics were horrendously persecuted, fun and frivolity outside of the bounds of biblical correctness (according to Cromwell) were banned. So too was Christmas (too much fun), and all plays. From the 1640s – 1658, when he died, Cromwell had dispensed with all the merriment of the English madrigal (Morley, Weekes, et. al.) and the secularity that overlapped into all manner of the Elizabethan culture, forbidding, on puritanical grounds, anything but religious expression within very small confines.

After Cromwell’s death, the pendulum swung the other way, opening the artistic floodgates for all sorts of secular expression, and the concomitant sharing of those styles with sacred music as well. Charles II was called “the Merry Monarch,” due not only to his hedonistic tendencies, but also to the general relief of much of the populace at Cromwell’s death in September 1658.

One year later, Purcell was born into a family of Chapel Royal (priests and singers to serve the needs of the royal family) musicians. His father died when Henry was 5 or 6, he was writing music tunes by age 8, and was appointed a chorister at the Chapel Royal in 1668. His voice broke in 1673, rendering him redundant as a singer, but available for music related jobs in the Chapel until his death.

With Charles II having regained the throne in 1661, the English Restoration was Purcell’s world and the world in which Dido and Aeneas was created. As if in Trumbo-like anonymity, a prominent theater producer in London conspired to have staged works set to music and song, music not being blacklisted. Five composers, including Purcell’s close contact and possible teacher, Matthew Locke, wrote the music for these semi-operas, a style of stage work Purcell wrote at least five times after his only full opera, Dido. Its libretto was an adaptation of future English poet laureate Nahum Tate’s Enchanted Lovers (which itself is taken from Book 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid.) In the years following the first documented 1689 performance of Dido, Purcell amassed an astounding body of work including the ground-breaking choral/orchestral works Te Deum and Jubilate Deo. He composed elegies and completed incidental music for 30 to 40 plays. And then was he “laid in earth” at age 36.

Shapely Singing, Able Acting

Unlike the semi-opera of this period in England, Dido contains no dialogue, but rather recitative, in the Italian fashion, and of course arias. Possibly the best known aria by this composer was, and is, “Dido’s Lament” (“When I am laid in earth…”). The climax of the opera, it demonstrates Purcell’s ability to capture mood in musical line, as heard in the falling minor seconds in the cello accompaniment, and is a great showpiece for mezzo soprano. Laura Thoreson did it proud. This is a singer to be reckoned with – remember her — easily the best mezzo for this type of repertoire I’ve heard in a couple of years. (And we’ll be able to hear her with Portland Opera next summer, as she appears in Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers July 22 through August 6.)

The rest of the cast was also well chosen. One of the most important attributes for the conductor/producer (in this case, Patrick McDonough) is — like a great athletic coach — putting the right players on the field at the right time. This group was rightly cast from top to bottom. Soprano Catherine van der Salm was first rate as Dido’s sister/handmaiden. As Sorcerer, bass-baritone Erik Hundtoft was in excellent voice, sometimes stealing the show.

Others shone brightly as well. Soprano Arwen Myers was a brilliant shepherdess; soprano Mel Downie Robinson compelling in her acting and singing. “Acting” was a component here, notwithstanding the “concert performance” as advertised. All the singers used their bodies and faces to heighten characterization, as they should. Printed text would have helped the audience follow the action as the acoustic gobbled up articulation of female voices, except for Ms. Thoreson’s. The title male lead, baritone Tim O’Brien, was effective in the role, if at times a bit unfocused in the high register. Nicholas Ertsgaard’s tenor voice clearly delineated his role with excellent musical taste.

The small band of strings were competent, even though there were a few bumps in the road early on. The theorbo (and cello) carried the entire continuo: no other keyboard was used. Hideki Yamaya, the theorbo and occasionally baroque guitar player was the glue, as he covered recitatives and most other ensemble offerings, a job probably done by three or more performers in Purcell’s day. Yamaya, who also leads Portland early music group Musica Maestrale, was the sine qua non of this accompanying instrumental ensemble.

The other glue, perhaps super glue, was McDonough himself, not as much with gesture but with pacing and transition, precise proportion and knowledge of when to step in and out of frame.

In Purcell we hear many of the conventions of the late 17th century, from Italy and France, as well as England: lots of dotted rhythms; cross-relations (where two disagreeing notes occur within a beat or two of one another); heavy use of proportions in tempo (most often where meter changes from duple to triple and back, effectively one of the few ways available to early composers of changing the tempo before the advent of the metronome); and use of the Scotch snap (where the dotted rhythm is “backwards,” such as a sixteenth note followed by a dotted eighth) in some of the rhythms. Instrumental dances/interludes were sparkling, but Purcell’s vocal melodies are the cherry on the top, and they were abundant in the arias and duets.

One significant omission in the program might have left the audience a bit confused. The opening two offerings (Overture and Prologue) were listed under the title Venus and Adonis, presumably by John Blow, while the remainder of the program, Dido and Aeneas, began with the overture and ended at Act 3, Scene 2. It seems that there was not the space to include either composers’ names or their dates.

But that was the only missing sweet in this rich collection of musical treats. Sometimes in a musical performance, as with a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. With Ensemble of Oregon, there is always a variety. The singers are facile, their programs are innovative, director/founder McDonough is broadly capable. The English are no more acclaimed for chocolate than for opera, but in this case, we got the bon-bon with extra sprinkles.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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