Naxos continues its welcome re-release of opera productions previously available on the boutique FRA label. There wasn’t a duffer amongst François Roussillon’s immaculately curated collection, making these DVDs and Blu-ray mandatory purchases if you missed them first time round.

Les Arts Florissants

Purcell ‘s Dido and Aeneas was one of the earliest attempts at opera in the English language, written either for a girls’ school or possibly for the court of King Charles II. If it were the latter, the Merry Monarch with his taste for all things continental would have loved the seamless mix of French and English artistry in this Opéra Comique staging from 2008. Les Arts Florissants is led by William Christie in a ravishingly decorated musical account with a nod perhaps to Purcell’s cross-channel contemporaries Lully and Charpentier.

Deborah Warner’s engaging production manages to have one foot in the period camp and one in the here and now. The former is represented by Chloe Obolensky’s gilded Baroque proscenium stage and the sumptuous 17th-century court costumes worn by Dido and her ladies. The thoroughly modern elements include a chorus who sing mostly from the sides of the stage and wear neutral, contemporary clothing, and a bouncy chorus of latter-day schoolgirls echoing the 1689 performance we know took place at Josias Priest’s girls’ school in London.

Acting standards are high with Warner providing ample space to explore Dido’s hesitant, then blossoming love, her betrayal and ultimate suicide. Swedish mezzo Malena Ernman as Dido and British baritone Christopher Maltman as Aeneas convey the subtle emotional arc by means of the tiniest of gestures or looks. Warner also explores the feelings of love, companionship, and ultimately of guilt, that develop between Dido and her confidants Belinda (Judith Van Wanroij) and the unnamed Second Woman (Lina Markeby). Their emotional journey which reaches its conclusion in the sublime final chorus is deeply moving. That she does all that while having fun with a trio of campy, cabaret-cum-commedia witches – and then still breaks our hearts – is testament to an unerring directorial sense of what the show can take, theatrically speaking.

The principal cast is flawless. Ernman’s guarded, vulnerable Dido is a noble creation, her clean, clear voice and perfect English climaxing in a perfectly judged Lament. Maltman’s virile baritone lends gravitas and dignity to his decent yet conflicted Aeneas. Van Wanroij’s flexible soprano and warm stage presence create a Belinda you want to hug at the end. The more wary Markeby provides an ideal complement. Hilary Summers’ blowzy, chain-smoking Sorceress is great value for money with Celine Ricci and Ana Quintans her cheeky accomplices. Fiona Shaw launches the show in style, bringing to life a trio of relevant poems by Ted Hughes, T S Eliot and Yeats that replaces Purcell’s lost prologue.

Christie’s imaginative musical direction is both stylish and dramatically assured with lively tempi and a perfectly judged throttle back for When I am laid and the concluding With drooping wings

Beautifully filmed and recorded in state-of-the-art sound, this is a magnificent reminder of what music lost with the death of Purcell at the tender age of 36. 

Composer: Henry Purcell
Work: Dido and Aeneas
Performers: Malena Ernman, Christopher Maltman, Judith Van Wanroij, Hilary Summers, Fiona Shaw, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Label: Naxos 2110709 (DVD), NBD0140V (Blu-ray)

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