As Mariana Flores sang “Remember me” during Dido’s Lament, it dawned on me I would indeed never forget this outrageous performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Jazzy baroque improvisations, boisterous songs in over-the-top masques, and other surprising vaudeville theatrics originating from Christine Pluhar’s inventive mind filled the evening, as her ensemble L’Arpeggiata offered an extraordinary palette of instrumental colours. The vibrant soloists for Dido, Aeneas, Belinda and the sorceress added to the delight. The excellent Voces8 elevated the evening to a wonderful, slightly bizarre, musical experience, as they demonstrated their wacky theatrics and musical versatility. Altogether, Ms Pluhar’s concept left me baffled at first, then stimulated, and by the end utterly charmed.

As the highpoint in Utrecht’s Oudemuziek Festival programming, this year themed “England, my England”, tonight’s performance was sold out. The audience looked down at the stage where L’Arpeggiata sat centrally with the seats for Voces8 lined up behind the players. On each side stood two slightly elevated platforms for the singers. The evening opened with a brief change-ringing, from the Society of Cambridge Youth, which served to heighten my interest and attention for the oncoming concert.

The members of Voces8 were remarkable at creating a working balance out of their own individuality and their harmony with each other. During the Prologue about Phoebus and Aurora, Dingle Yandell’s bass voice emerged as a gripping contrast to soloist Nora Fischer. Throughout the evening in between the acts of Purcell's opera, each singer had a moment in the spotlight in the old songs in the entertaining masques Pluhar devised. The ease with which V8 switched between Purcell’s moving music and the more frivolous songs revealed the ensemble’s excellent technical versatility.

A flamboyant Vincente Capezzuto treated the audience to two songs. His performance of “Within a Mile of Edinburgh Town” created laugh out loud moments. He demonstrated his musicianship with astounding high notes all the while dressed in drag in a highly energetic, cabaret act. Continuing with the bizarre, in Act II Ms Fischer returned to take over the spotlight as a wild-haired, saucy sorceress in hussy, fishnet stockings. However entertaining, the farcical scenes detracted from the emotional weight of Purcell’s dramatic build up.

The musicians of L’Arpeggiata delivered a tour de force performance. From the wide array of instrumental colours, Pluhar allowed each player a moment to shine by demonstrating his or her improvisatory skills. Purcell’s music felt alive and vibrant. Pluhar’s terrific musicians were at the top of their game, as they manoeuvred seamlessly from Purcell to improvisation, back to Purcell again. 

Doron Sherwin's cornetto sounded at once exotic and comforting. Whether on the klavecimbel, organ or melodica, the spirited Francesco Turrisi added swinging style. Boris Schmidt on the double bass and Eero Palviainen on Baroque guitar enriched the groovy improvisations. Add to them the flair of Sergei Saprichev’s syncopated percussive rhythms and at some point it seemed that I was witnessing a jam session. Huge applause drowned out the booing purists, of whom several left after the unconventional reworking of Act II.

Although the soloists convinced dramatically, I was never tearfully swept off my feet. As Belinda, Celine Scheen‘s gentle voice comforted, though at times it sounded too fragile. Marc Mouillon provided a class act as Aeneas: clear diction with enveloping warmth. In Mouillon’s care, Aeneas departing aria filled with heartfelt sorrow, while convincingly acting out his love for Dido.

And what a Dido! With the fiery passion and elegance of a flamenco dancer, Mariana Flores glided across stage in a scene-stealing red dress. She put down a romantically devastated Dido. In the lamentation, the sincerity and vulnerability in her transparent voice pierced through the skin and silenced a captivated audience.

As several listeners left the performance prematurely, it was clear that this over-the-top Dido wasn’t for everyone. Indeed it took me some time to get into the carnival mode, but once I got over the changes I eventually enjoyed the ride. It became a refreshing Purcell reworking I don’t think I will easily forget.

****1