Dido and Aeneas/Prima la musica, poi le parole

Edinburgh Festival review
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan (Conductor); SCO Chorus, Mark Hindley (Chorus Master)
Purcell: DIDO AND AENEAS. Jane Irwin (Dido); Sarah-Jane Davies (Belinda); Roderick Williams (Aeneas); Jennifer Johnston (Sorceress); Reno Troilus (Mercury); Kate Valentine (Second Woman); Nathalie Montakhab (First Witch); Catherine Rogers (Second Witch); James Geer (Sailor) Salieri: PRIMA LA MUSICA, POI LE PAROLE. Neal Davies (Maestro); Roderick Williams (Poet); Giselle Allen (Eleonora); Gillian Keith (Tonina)

This ill-assorted coupling of Purcell's only opera and a divertimenti by Salieri
did not sit well together as a Festival double bill. There was no doubt about the merit, musical and historically, of Purcell's sadly-negelected work but there is considerable doubt about the merit of Salieri's piece. At least one disgruntled regular festival-goer muttered that the only conceivable reason for the performance was that Prima was the seed-corn for Richard Strauss's Capriccio, the only staged Opera in the last week of the Festival.

Purcell was -- and still is -- a familiar name for music lovers in Britain.
For many, however, it is familiarity with his name only, not familiarity with
his music.

Little of his output features in modern concerts and even the undoubted mastery
of Dido is a rarity. Composed for a girls' school, its performance there
was the only one during his lifetime, after which it was ignored until "rediscovered"
in Victorian times.

Actual performances have been rare but an older generation may well remember
the superb artistry of Janet Baker's Dido. The fact that the opera was specifically fashioned for a girls' school may account for the composition of the cast and a certain concision of the text.

In this concert performance, energetic conductor Nicholas McGegan drew an exemplary
response from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus. A response that underpinned
the dramatic impact of the soloists, whose strength and clarity without the
aid of microphones was exemplary.

Roderick Williams, the love-struck Aeneas, comes across not so much as Virgil's
hero but rather a confused, troubled seducer who finally obeys an order from his gods and deserts
his beloved Dido, Queen of Carthage.

Jennifer Johnston, the Sorceress plotting the destruction of Carthage and a
stormy end for Aeneas, was fiercely malevolent. Her wicked plans were ably portayed
by two witches (students from the RSAMD) whose cackling, mocking laughter exuded
exactly the right element of evil glee.

Jane Irwin was on top form as Dido, supported throughout by her thoughtful,
devoted handmaiden Belinda (Sarah-Jane Davies). Irwin gave an impeccable performance. Once Powerful and furious, Dido left the audience emotionally drained with her dying aria "Darkness shades me". This brief opera was a musical jewel in the 2007 festival, with performers and a production worthy of further exposure.

Coming after such a performance, an opera about a composer and a poet arguing
about the primacy of either music or words in the work they have been commissioned
to write is at best lightweight.

This short Salieri opera was composed at the behest of Austrian Emperor Joseph
II. It was performed in the Orangerie at Schonbrunn Palace after a State Banquet
-- and after a similarly written comic opera by Mozart had been performed at
the other end of the Orangerie. Salieri, by the way, was paid twice as much
as Mozart.

Musically, the work is uneven and Salieri "borrowed"some key elements
from other composers. Apart from Neal Davies as the composer and Roderick Williams
as the poet the other performers were Giselle Allen as Eleonora, a prima donna, and Gillian
Keith as Tonina, a young comedy actress.

All four performed admirably -- though it must be said Eleonora had the better
material. The SCO were in good form also, as was McGegan with his expressive stabbing
forefinger. In other circumstances the opera might well have been aired for its curiosity
value. Here it was just inappropriate, despite giving an insight into Capriccio's origins.

Concert date 26 August 2007

© Iain Gilmour August 28 2007. First published on EdinburghGuide.com See
also Scottish Chamber Orchestra at www.sco.org.uk