The Voice of Purcell

ItalyItaly  Purcell, Dido and Aeneas. Chorus and String Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome. Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani. Conductor, Jonathan Webb. Stage director, Chiara Muti; Sets, Mario Torre; Costumes, Alessandro Lai; Choreographer, Micha van Hoecke; Lights, Vincent Longuemare. East Gymnasium of the Baths of Caracalla, Rome. 13.06.2013 (JB)


Dido, Queen of Carthage –Serena Malfi
Belinda, her Lady in Waiting- Kiandra Howarth
Aeneas, a Trojan Prince –Jacques Imbrailo
A sailor –Riccardo Pisani

DIDO AND AENEAS Jacques-Imbrailo Enea Terme-di-Caracalla Stagione-2013
® Silvia-Lelli Teatre dell Opera di Roma

In the beginning was the Voice. And the Voice dwelled amongst us and became flesh. And behold, the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal said, We never heard such a Voice. For the Gentlemen were real music educators: they knew that it mattered not what you put into a Voice, but what you got out of it. And what they got out of it amazed them. We never heard the like, they said. And the boy continued to pour out Musick (for so was it written at the time by the Gentlemen.) The Fairest Isle could not believe what it heard. Nor would it ever hereafter.

That may be the language of mythology. But the mythology happens to be strictly, historically true. The boy was Henry Purcell. The phenomena is audible in every bar of his unrivalled compositions. So much in so little space! He is the world’s master of conciseness, expression and precision. Most of it was work in progress, written to hasty commissions, like the Ode on His Majesty’s Arrival at Newmarket Races. Masterpiece after masterpiece. The boy only knew perfection. And before he was forty he was dead.

Around the same time in Northern Italy, Christoph Willibald Gluck was striving towards a new form of musical expression through words in dramatic situations. He eventually got there, perfecting the technique as he invented it. Henry Purcell didn’t have to strive. He composed as fast as he could write. The commissions came in fast. And out as fast as they came in. The genius was also a workaholic. He simply had to connect with the Voice. And transcribe it. Put like that, it sounds simple. There was a complication too. He had to connect with the Court of the day, of Charles 11, then James 11. The Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal helped. The maestros became the servants. As Ronald Knox wrote of the miracle of Christ walking on the Sea of Galilee, When the water saw its Lord, it blushed.

There is even a suggestion that Dido and Aeneas had its first performance at the Royal Court in the form of a masque: an intimate entertainment of songs and dances strung together round a vaguely classical theme. The librettist, Nahum Tate had based his entertainment on Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, with a bunch of English witches thrown in for good measure. Jacobean audiences loved to hate witches in the way modern audiences love to hate mindless violence. (I trespass briefly, here on Dr Ian Bostridge’s expertise: a field in which he is a world leader.) There are no witches in Virgil. The ancient Romans got their kicks in other ways: lustful violence was a principal target of fun.

Oddly enough, the first known (i.e. registered) performance of Dido was at Mr Josias Priest’s School for Young Gentlewomen in Chelsea, London in 1688. Was Mr Priest in cahoots with Tate and Purcell to encourage erotic arousal in the Young Ladies of Chelsea? However, in the performance under review, everybody keeps their knickers on. It is both respectful and respectable.

The point to grasp here is that all the Voices are Purcell’s own, witches included. Rome Opera staged the performance in the East Gymnasium of the Baths of Caracalla. The acting area is ample, but the seating is reduced to a mere one hundred and twenty. That’s fine in that it gives the admirable feeling of secrets being whispered among a few friends. Though it did mean that a former student who had written a fine graduation thesis on Purcell was unable to find a ticket.

The staging was in the hands of Chiara Muti –Riccardo’s daughter. Well, dear Chiara, it is clear that daddy has taught you a lot, intentionally or not. Importantly, you stand solidly behind Purcell’s Voice. The production was a blaze of simple dignity with no unnecessary distractions or secondary effects and above all, a thorough grasp of the composers soul: all matters which Muti senior attends to with perfection in his Verdi. Henry Purcell would have hugged you: Chiara, I mean; not Riccardo.

Mario Torre’s sets made use of the original Caracalla stones and Alessandro Lai’s costumes chimed in well with the all-over majesty of production; Micha van Hoecake’s choreography was also admirably stream-lined. I attended opening night. And the lighting (Vincent Longuemare) was not always right in detail. A spotlight intended to mark out Aeneas on his important appearances was more effective at blinding me on Row 5, seat 28; even using my programme as a shield didn’t help much! All the more tiresome too in that Jacques Imbrailo was the only singer who had entered into a perfect understanding of Purcell’s Voice; his Aeneas was clear of tone with beautifully articulated diction. He moved well too, with the grace of a professional dancer.

Roberto Gabbiani did his usual excellent job with the chorus: they were perfect in rhythm and diction. Compliments to Maestro Gabbiani as another who has understood the uniqueness of the Purcell Voice. His division of the chorus was perfectly balanced with only three voices to each of the four parts for the on-stage chorus, who wore Jacobean Courtly wigs. The off-stage chorus (witches, spirits and the like) was much bigger (11 sopranos, 7 each of altos and tenors and 4 basses) . They were amplified but the amplification was so discreet as to add valuable mystery to their immaculate contributions. O Purcell, thou should’st have been living in this setting!

Jonathan Webb produced some fine, clear playing from the string orchestra: 6:4:4:3:1 plus harpsichord and baroque guitar: all discreetly amplified, as is necessary in an open space. Imagine the difficulties in getting Italian string players to give up most vibrato to produce the naked sound of Purcell’s purity. It sounded as though this had been an uphill battle. Well if it was, you were the clear winner, Maestro Webb.

Like others before them, Rome used the edition prepared for the Festival of Britain in 1951 by Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst. The earliest score extant is the Bodleian Library copy of 1750, more than half a century after the composer’s death. Britten made no changes to this score except to add to Aeneas’s recitative which abruptly ends Act 2, some dance music from Purcell’s other scores (he respectfully resisted writing anything himself). Like others before them, Britten and Holst were convinced that some pages had been lost to close this Act. All this works well. And is, of course, in Purcell’s irreplaceable Voice.

I enjoyed Riccardo Pisani’s spirited performance of the Sailor’s song in Act 3. Speaking of spirited performances, reminds me of a most moving staging of Dido, which Hans Henze brought from Germany from an all-boys chorus to Montepulciano, when he was organising the Cantiere Internazionale there in the eighties. Jessye Norman’s Dido at Rome’s Accademia Filarmonica Romana was another treasured performance. I’m not old enough to remember Kirsten Flagstad’s performance at London’s Mermaid Theatre (1951), after which she recorded it (1953). But I did enjoy Janet Baker’s recording. All of these –different as they are- entered into the right understanding of the Purcell Voice. In contrast, Serena Malfi –tonight’s Dido- cannot properly be said to have any voice at all. Only worse, was Kiandra Howarth’s Belinda: horribly out of tune, most of the time!

Jack Buckley