Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Jephte & Dido and Aeneas review – Joyce DiDonato returns to the Barbican as the other Dido

2 February 2024

Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, thrills under Maxim Emelyanychev’s inspired direction, with Joyce DiDonato’s incandescent performance of the Carthaginian queen at its heart.

Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas (Photo: Mark Allan)

There was much cause for rejoicing on Friday evening at the Barbican, as American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato made a welcome return to these shores following on from her last appearance here in June last year with the Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Under its enigmatic music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, she sang extracts from Berlioz’ mammoth opera, Les Troyens, and was an utterly spellbinding Dido.

It was surely, then, only a matter of time before she added the other Dido to her repertoire, and essaying Purcell’s Cartheginian queen with long-time collaborator Maxim Emelyanychev and his elite period band, Il Pomo d’Oro, seemed like the obvious pairing. Their EDEN Project, which toured in 2022, was a triumph, so expectations were high for this, their latest venture. 

As expected, DiDonato embodied the role of Dido with her entire being. Regal, imperious, forlorn – she traced the gamut of emotions to perfection. Not only were these shifts in temperament mirrored in her facial expressions, but she also used a myriad of vocal colours to bring the character to life, infusing Purcell’s vocal lines with delicate flecks of light and shade. She crowned her remarkable interpretation with an anguished Dido’s Lament, her cries of ‘Remember me’ piercing the heart. To witness an artist at the peak of their considerable powers is always a privilege.

“…DiDonato embodied the role of Dido with her entire being”

Dido and Aeneas

Joyce DiDonato (Photo: Mark Allan)

Emelyanychev had built an impressive cast around his star mezzo, so there was a sense of a real ensemble. Fatma Said was a delightful Belinda, her silvery-toned soprano giving unalloyed joy throughout, while Andrew Staples, once he got over some occluded singing at the start, was a bright-voiced Aeneas. Beth Taylor, very nearly upstaging everyone with her luscious mezzo, was a gloriously over the top sorceress, summoning dark forces with a refulgent chest voice that would cause most Azucenas to blush, while Hugh Cutting made his brief appearance as the Spirit tell with his rich, perfectly focused countertenor voice. The smaller roles were cast from within the ranks of the Il Pomo d’Oro Choir, and all three made telling contributions – Massimo Altieri (Sailor), Alena Dantcheva (First Enchantress) and Anna Piroli (Second Enchantress).

Emelyanychev directed a lithe, ebullient, superbly crafted account of the work from the harpsichord with his customary elan, and drew characterful playing from his crack period ensemble – complete with a well-equipped percussion section that added plenty of spice to the proceedings. The results he conjured up were nothing short of revelatory – what a musical magician he is!

The first half was a more sedate affair – a perfectly judged, ineffably moving account of a real rarity – Carissimi’s 1650 oratorio, Jephte. Here Staples in the title role, and soprano Carlotta Colombo as his daughter, really shone – producing a steady stream of exquisitely poised singing. The impeccably blended voices of Il Pomo d’Oro Choir provided the perfect foil to the soloists, providing additional emotional depth where required. Emelyanychev was sensitive to every shift in the drama, coaxing breathtaking playing from only a handful of instrumentalists. 

Lighting doesn’t usually strike twice, but this evening was as engrossing, bold and musically rewarding as the EDEN Project, although, of course, very different in subject matter. Emelyanychev and DiDonato evidently spark off each other, so let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for their next project – whatever that might be.

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Jephte & Dido and Aeneas review – Joyce DiDonato returns to the Barbican as the other Dido
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