David Bates leads an all-star cast in a poised performance that withstood the heat.
Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a compact fifty minute tragedy originally written for a Girls’ School, filled the torpid late night air on Tuesday at the BBC Proms. La Nuova Musica made their Proms debut under David Bates, who directed from the harpsichord.
A concert performance was advertised, but this was more than a ‘stand and deliver’ affair. No director was credited, but the substance of the drama was there in tender meetings between characters, an anguished Act II monologue from Aeneas, and Dido’s faltering steps through the orchestra and into the darkness of the bull runs as the final peroration unfolded; hints of the Restoration theatre came from a wind machine and thunder sheet, stark and crisp in their effects.
These relatively bare bones were given sumptuous musical clothes by the choir of La Nuova Music. Though only 30 in number, they pulled a Judo-like maneouvre against the Royal Albert Hall’s overwhelming size, showcasing the incredible power of precisely focused consonants – the closing ‘t’ in the final ‘part’ was a pointed and deep as a syringe – and vowels brightened and shaded for effect. Contrasting choruses had colours and characters of their own that, as with the best madrigal singing, summoned their moods immediately and unequivocally, with ‘Destruction’s our delight’ a special high point.
Where violinist Matthew Truscott leads quality tends to follow, as was the case with superb instrumental support from La Nuova Musica itself. Playing was crisp and detailed throughout, but the most remarkable feature of the performance was surely an extravagant continuo section: four theorbos, with two doubling baroque guitar, two harps, and two harpsichords, as well as bass and cello. No risk of the keening underlay of Purcell’s arias and recitatives getting lost in heavy night air there. An extended, improvisatory guitar chaconne in Act II, with percussive striking of the instruments, rippled out from one, then, two, then yet more players, the richness of the largest theorbo offset by bright spikiness of harp. A spectacle worth the entry price alone.
“…the substance of the drama was there in tender meetings between characters…”
Everything else rested on Alice Coote’s Dido. Some high notes were snatched, but for the most part her voice was well-pitched between fragility and the burgeoning heaviness of grief. Her cries of ‘Away, away!’ to Aeneas crackled with despair and anger. The show’s moneymaker – the great final chaconne ‘When I am laid in earth’ – saw her spin out melimas that glowed and faded, with the occasional spark of sadness flying off in acute appoggiaturas. This was aided by an intuitive and responsive handling of the tempo from Bates, whose faltering pulse gave the aria’s grief a special piquancy.
Her Belinda, Gemma Summerfield gave a fraught and intense characterisation, sensing the doom at hand. James Newby’s Aeneas brought a flexible baritone to the table, showcased an impressive range of colours and textures, from steely resolve in soaring high notes to hushed whispers of resignation (no mean feat in such a cavernous space).
The cameo roles were luxury items. As the sailor, Nicky Spence again demonstrated his generosity and open-heartedness as a performer, as well as his good humour in a performance that was literally ‘all singing, all dancing’ (no less impressive given that mere months ago both his legs were in casts); he was joined by the shirtless duo of Luke Cartwirght and Owen Morris – certainly advisable in this heat – who helped bring substantial splashes of laughter in their short scene. Tim Mead’s spirit was a dramatic apparition in the organ loft, and sang with power and flair, even if some vocal impact was lost through his placement. Nardus Williams gave a jewel-like account of the Second Woman. Madeleine Shaw sang a classy Sorceress, which probably could’ve leaned more into unvarnished ghoulishness, supported by Helen Charleston and Martha McLorinan. The concert concluded with the kind of unearthly, pin-drop silence special to the Proms and doubly intimate in the Royal Albert Hall.
• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.