Luminous Purcell Paired with Handel and Tallis

United StatesUnited States Purcell, Dido and Aeneas; Handel, Tallis: Soloists, Theatre of Early Music, Daniel Taylor (conductor). Town Hall, Seattle, 11.2.2012 (BJ)

Following in the auspicious footsteps of another distinguished countertenor-turned-conductor – René Jacobs – the Canadian Daniel Taylor is now the artistic director and conductor of the Montreal-based Theatre of Early Music, a vocal and instrumental ensemble that he founded. The second half of their concert in Seattle’s Town Hall was devoted to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and this was prefaced before intermission by arias and other pieces by Handel, Tallis, and Purcell himself.

The evening began with three of the finest arias and a duet from Handel oratorios. Perhaps the loveliest of these four pieces was Irene’s “As with Rosy Steps the Morn,” from Theodora, music of wonderful rhythmic subtlety, which was sung with a powerful range of emotion by Meg Bragle. Equally compelling performances were offered by Agnes Zsigovics with “The Pilgrim’s Hope,” from the same oratorio; by Benjamin Butterfield with “Total Eclipse” from Samson; and by Grace Davidson and Taylor himself with the charmingly light-hearted “Oh Lovely Peace” from Judas Maccabaeus.

All of these singers, with a few others, were to reappear in solo roles in Dido, but first they joined forces in performances of a cappella pieces by Tallis (O Nata Lux) and Purcell (Remember Not, O Lord, and Hear My Prayer) that featured perhaps the most ravishing vocal work of the evening. To hear a dozen performers, without instrumental support, singing with the most exquisitely accurate intonation and with beautifully matched tone is a rare pleasure. In Tallis’s Latin-language hymn, I thought the soft “g” they produced in the word “contegi” was perhaps unidiomatic – but then, the fact that I even noticed it was evidence of the group’s exceptionally clear diction.

The two short Purcell works were a fascinating choice, because, juxtaposed with Dido and Aeneas, they provide a contrast of styles analogous to that of his predecessor Monteverdi’s prima prattica – used in unaccompanied choral polyphony and the seconda prattica of his more harmonically oriented operas. Under Taylor’s unobtrusive leadership, Dido received a luminous and often deeply moving performance, incisively but never harshly played by a small group of violins, viola, cello, bass, lute, and harpsichord, and no less splendidly sung.

The Dido was Noémi Kiss, whose English, while revealing traces of her native Hungarian, still kept a riveting grip on a spellbound audience. Like most of her colleagues in this largely concert-style performance, she projected an impressively pure yet resonant tone and a line of exemplary clarity, and she rose memorably to the emotional peak of that great threnody, “When I am laid in earth.” Grace Davidson was an affecting Belinda, and Alexander Dobson an imposing and perhaps appropriately somewhat emotionally stiff Aeneas, who is clearly the villain of this female-centered opera. Daniel Taylor, backed by Meara Conway and Meg Bragle as the two witches, combined his conducting responsibilities with a lively portrayal of the Sorceress, David Clegg delivered the pseudo-Mercurial reminder to Aeneas to get on with his duty of founding the Roman empire, and Benjamin Butterfield had and provided a lot of fun with his turn as a drunken sailor.

What was perhaps the most illuminating aspect of the performance was that its severity of expressive tone, while keeping any hint of mawkishness firmly at bay, seemed to intensify rather than weaken the irresistible emotional impact of Purcell’s historically isolated operatic masterpiece. Purcell came, sadly, a few years before London musical life was to offer Handel the chance of creating a whole succession of great operas. But Dido and Aeneas will, most emphatically, serve as consoling proof of his genius.

Bernard Jacobson