Dido and Aeneas in Portland

27 June 2011


Detail from the Low Ham mosaic, from a fourth-century AD Roman villa in Britain, depicting Dido and Aeneas embracing.

First of all, I’m not an opera enthusiast. The nineteenth century Italian operas that dominate the repertoire don’t speak to me at all, and I consequently never listen to them. But some years ago I was watching a television documentary about music, and they included a performance of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s early opera Dido and Aeneas. I was fascinated, and soon after bought a CD of the music. After than time I began listening to early modern operas, though I remain unmoved by the more popular manifestations of the genre.

Dido and Aeneas remains my favorite opera music, so I was happy to see that this year’s Oregon Bach Festival would include a performance of Dido and Aeneas by the Portland Baroque Orchestra. Last year for the Oregon Bach Festival the PBO performed all the the Brandenburg Concertos, which performance I attended and enjoyed immensely (and wrote about in Six concerts à plusieurs instruments).

Leah Wool, Mezzo-Soprano

Leah Wool, Mezzo-Soprano

This year for the Oregon Bach Festival, the Portland Baroque Orchestra didn’t play any Bach at all, and half the program wasn’t even baroque. As though the program was arranged in dialectical subtlety, the program began with the instrumental Simply Symphony of Benjamin Britten (the thetic movement, if you will), followed by six A Capella Choral Dances from Britten’s Gloriana (the antithetic movement). Thus far the program was twentieth century, but the synthetic climax was Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, for both instruments and voice.

It could be considered a staple of performing arts mythology that the long-suffering understudy should get his or her great opportunity when the star billed for the big show is unable to perform. Only just days before Dido and Aeneas it was announced on the PBO website that the scheduled soprano Golda Schultz was “indisposed” and that her place would be taken by Leah Wool. Ms. Wool doesn’t seem to be a long-suffering understudy, but it was bold of her to step in at the last minute.

While Dido’s Lament is my favorite part of Dido and Aeneas, I don’t think that that prejudiced my judgment, but I really think that this brief number was the strongest part of the entire show. Wool’s performance was not only the embodiment of technical perfection, but was an assured and confident performance. It is easy to imagine that aspiring opera singers practice these ‘greatest moments” arias, and so if they ever do get called in as their big chance to shine in the starring role, they probably know these pieces best.

While I was watching the twentieth century portion of the show I was wondering, since the PBO is known as an early music ensemble that seeks to present historically informed performances, whether they were using their accustomed instruments, or if they had instead temporarily traded in their early instruments for period instruments from the mid-twentieth century. Returning from the show I read this on the PBO website: “Includes Benjamin Britten’s divine Choral Dances and Simple Symphony, which Monica [Huggett] has always wanted to play on gut strings.” This both answered my question and posed a whole new set of questions: what are we to call performances that employ historical instruments and technique for the performance of contemporary music?

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The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance Holland (1735 – 1811)

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “Dido and Aeneas in Portland”

  1. […] Dido and Aeneas in Portland (geopolicraticus.wordpress.com) […]

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