fri 31/10/2014

Dido and Aeneas/ Actéon, Wigmore Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Dido and Aeneas/ Actéon, Wigmore Hall

An evening of French and English repertoire yields harmonious dialogue

Claire Booth: dazzling, if a little too warm, as Charpentier's merciless Diane

The Wigmore Hall staged its own Entente Cordiale last night with an operatic double bill bridging both sides of the Channel. Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company looked beyond predictable partners for Purcell’s inconveniently short Dido and Aeneas, lighting on Charpentier’s Actéon, another miniature tragédie en musique. With rather more emphasis on the musique and rather less on the tragédie, the work may not be quite the equal of Purcell’s concise emotional epic, but as an evening’s musical dialogue this was harmonious indeed.

Near contemporaries, Charpentier and Purcell have both come to typify the 17th-century styles of their two nations. Yet – as is so often the case with English music – Purcell’s national idiom is rather more of a mongrel than it might at first appear, as much the offspring of continental influences as of his English forebears. Taught by Pelham Humphrey, who himself studied in France, there is more than a whiff of Gallic style in Purcell’s orchestration and treatment of dance music – all elements subtly heightened and highlighted in last night’s programming.

Lyon delivered a plea for mercy that would soften all but the very sternest of virgin goddessesThe legend of Diana and Actaeon – the hunter who unwisely glimpses the goddess and her nymphs bathing, and is transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds – is not an especially weighty one, but feels even slighter in Charpentier’s lyric treatment. A rather thankless galloping chorus for the hunters sets the musical scene for a brisk, stylish little narrative, whose highlights include a meltingly lovely passage of pleading from Actéon (Ed Lyon) and an instrumental interlude for violin duet and continuo following his transformation that is a trio sonata in all but name.

Lyon himself (pictured below, fresh from French triumph as Mercury in English National Opera’s Castor and Pollux) made for a dashing young hunter. If his upper register seemed tired at times, he more than compensated with the stylish playfulness of his delivery, dandling Charpentier’s melodies casually on his voice, and delivering a plea for mercy that would soften all but the very sternest of virgin goddesses.

As Diane, soprano Claire Booth was predictably assured, though perhaps offering a little too much vocal warmth here to convince of the steely purity of her character. With soloists phasing in and out of the seven-strong vocal ensemble, the effect was of relaxed intimacy, yet throughout the evening the singers consistently outdid the instrumentalists for colour and energy, making me long for just a chink of release or excess from Curnyn’s habitually tasteful direction.

With the evening’s advertised Dido (Anna Stephany) unwell, Susan Bickley stepped in at short notice to sing the role of Purcell’s ill-fated queen. Hers was a deceptively quiet performance, the opening “Ah, Belinda” almost matter-of-fact in its delivery. But by the time we reached the opera’s closing lament this matter-of-factness had become a desperate stoicism, charged with all the more poignancy with its stubborn lack of excess.

Framed by a glossy Belinda from Booth and a deliciously disturbing Sorceress from Hilary Summers, Bickley was nobly partnered by Marcus Farnsworth as Aeneas. This thankless role offers little opportunity either dramatically or vocally, but it speaks to the skill of this rising young baritone that he managed to bring some gravitas to Purcell’s cursorily sketched anti-hero.

This is the kind of programming the Wigmore Hall does best: intelligent, unusual and above all intimate. To hear Purcell’s work performed with single voices of such quality was a joy, and while episodes such as the drunken sailors chorus (all a bit decorous and teetotal) could have done with the oomph of a larger ensemble, the flexibility and detail of the vocal lines more than made up for any lack. A dialogue of the familiar and unfamiliar, of French and English music – nothing was lost in translation last night for Curnyn and his fine musicians.

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