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Early Music, Opera Review

Purcell's Dido and Aeneas Satisfies at Early Music Festival

March 19, 2010 - Asheville, NC:

The second weekend of the ECHO Early Music Festival featured Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas under Michael Porter’s musical direction. The opera was presented in concert form in the warm acoustic space of St. Matthias Episcopal Church on Friday evening, two-thirds filling the sanctuary. A repeat performance was scheduled for Saturday, March 20 in Hendersonville.

Dido and Aeneas was a landmark event in operatic history. The only opera composed by Purcell that is totally sung (his other works have spoken dialog between set-piece arias), it continues to please audiences in the 21st century.

Amanda Porter, a mezzo-soprano who demonstrates strong dramatic ability as well as vocal skill, sang the leading role of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Beth DuRoy sang Belinda, the other soprano lead. The two voices complemented each other well. Throughout the opera, one also noted the authority that Ms. Porter brought to her role, and the appropriate subservience that was expressed by Ms. DuRoy in her role of “best friend to a queen.”

Aeneas, the Trojan Prince, is listed as a tenor role, but lyric baritone Philip Haynie was comfortable and convincing in his portrayal of Dido’s love interest who abandons her in order to resume his pursuit of his historic role that the Fates have ordained. His big moment is when he resolves to return to the wars in his solo with chorus “Stay, Prince, and hear great Jove's command.”

In Purcell’s adaptation of the mythological tale, a Sorceress and two witches replace the Gods. Baritone Timothy Wilds sang the role of Sorceress (originally a mezzo-soprano role). He entered dramatically with his first aria “Wayward sisters, you that fright,” instructing the two witches that he has conjured up to confound the love affair of Dido and Aeneas. He absolutely gloated in his later aria “Our next motion,” when his plans were working.

Six members of the fine fourteen-member mixed voice chorus doubled as soloists. Aaron Schnurbusch’s light tenor voice did not match my expectations for a vigorous Sailor, but the other roles were well cast. Andrea Blough and Valerie Haber as the two witches were notable. 

The choruses were accompanied by a ten-member string orchestra that also played the incidental dances. The Sailor’s Hornpipe in Scene V was especially good. Harpsichordist Barry Oliver, lutenist Robin Sholder and cellist Eric Scheider provided an instrumental continuo that never became obtrusive, yet was always present under the solo voices.

While the soloists did not attempt acting gestures, color was used effectively to represent interaction in this concert performance. Dido and Aeneas were in stark black and white, Aeneas in formal men’s wear and Dido in a striking formal gown. Belinda wore a blue shawl and looked to be a lady in waiting. The Sorceress and the two Witches had red accents along with their basic black choral dress.

For this performance, Michael Porter brought together a band of musicians who understand historic performance practice. Playing on gut strings, they tuned to A415, a semitone lower than the modern standard. The vocalists and the string players all appeared to have thought deeply about vibrato (variation in pitch) and tremolo (variation in volume), both of which have been the subject of many polemics in recent years. Their conclusion seems to be a little more tremolo than vibrato, not very much of either, but not a silly total abolition. I applaud this. We shall never really know what they did in 1700, so we should use our judgment about what sounds musical in realizing the score.

This opera really does revolve around Dido, who dominates the action. Amanda Porter’s portrayal was emotionally moving and musically thrilling, starting with her appearance in Scene One as she announces “Ah! Belinda, I am press'd with torment” and ending with her decision to commit suicide. By the time we reached “Dido’s Lament,” that very familiar penultimate musical number, the audience was rapt and captivated, as were chorus members. I detected tears forming in the eyes of two altos and one bass, and appropriately so. This was a moving opera.