There is always a degree of trepidation when hearing a performance of Purcell’s ground-breaking opus Dido and Aeneas. Not only has the original autograph score been long lost, there have been so many editions and tinkering with what remains of the verifiable notation that each production is almost a new musical experience. Only the barest skeleton of the partitura has survived and this has been subject to a startling diversity of exhumations. According to Purcell scholars Curtis Price and Andrew Pinnock, the first was some time around 1750 but then interest in the work waned for almost a hundred years until the Musical Antiquarian Society published a version by George McFarren in 1841 and Novello & Ewer through the Purcell Society produced a further critical edition by William Cummings in 1889. Imogen Holst and Benjamin Britten came up with an inventive if not bizarre realization in the 1950s which is best forgotten. It is also hard to think of another opera where a pivotal role (the Sorceress) can be sung by a mezzo or, in Christopher Hogwood’s reading, a bass.

<i>Dido and Aeneas</i> © Emanuele Pucciarelli
Dido and Aeneas
© Emanuele Pucciarelli

Christian Frattima led the Coin du Roi in his own edition of this illusive score which in maintaining hermeneutical integrity, seemed at first hearing closer to the Cummings and McFarren versions. There were a lot of novel inclusions such as an original prologue, end of scene ritornelli, alternation of choir and solo in “So fair the game”, inclusion of a dance from Purcell’s earlier semi-opera Diocletian and the final “With drooping wings” chorus sung a cappella to emphasise the vocal line and textual importance. Frattima argues that if Purcell had more competent choristers at hand than schoolchildren, he would surely have written the dénouement with such dramatic effect.   

Performed in the acoustically problematic church of St Peter, the opera was semi-staged by Marco Bellussi with lots of movable pedestal-like white blocks and a glowing globe to indicate meteorological machinations brought about by the devious Sorceress and her spooky handmaidens. The mise en scène may have been less than a convincing replica of epicurean Carthage, but after all this was in a circumspect Lutheran church where obstreperous sibyls would not have been particularly welcome.

The traditional explanation that Purcell intended the opera to be sung by children of the Chelsea Girls’ School is not without contention, but the vocal and dramatic challenges in Dido and Aeneas are far from adolescent. There was fire aplenty with hefty chest notes from Milena Storti as the malevolent Sorceress and her cohort hags cackled and cavorted with pernicious portentousness. There was limpid phrasing and dulcet tones from Anna Chierichetti as Dido’s sagacious sister. Looking a little like Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ, Giulio Alvise Caselli’s hirsute blond Aeneas was dramatically credible but a fast vibrato and uneven phrasing marred the Purcellian vocal line. The First Sailor was competently sung by Riccardo Botta. 

Elīna Šimkus (Dido) and Anna Chierichetti (Belinda) © Emanuele Pucciarelli
Elīna Šimkus (Dido) and Anna Chierichetti (Belinda)
© Emanuele Pucciarelli

Local soprano Elīna Šimkus sang a musically mellifluous and dramatically convincing Carthaginian queen, although the relatively limited tessitura of the role did little to display her formidable range and remarkable spectrum of vocal colours. The chromatic recitative “Thy hand, Belinda” which precedes the famous Lament was memorable for some poignant word colouring on “death” and “darkness” and was delivered with regal dignity and flawless intonation. In the chaconne-aria itself, the words “laid” and the repeated D natural on “remember me” were heartfelt, vibrato-less and deeply affecting. The ground bass accompaniment was consistently sensitive to the singer and mirrored the subtlety of Šimkus’ impeccable phrasing. If there was any criticism, it is that Šimkus’ diction was not always as impressive as her seamless legato, warm rounded timbre and seemingly effortless breath control.

Similarly, the vast majority of singers were Italian which may explain why there were consistent difficulties with English elocution. Certainly the tenebrous acoustics of the church didn’t help and librettist Nahum Tate was no Shakespeare, but Virgil’s original drama and Purcell’s moving music deserved a better attempt at clear enunciation. 

Frattima did his best to tame the furies of the acoustics and led both orchestra and chorus with sensitivity and conspicuous attention to the dynamic gradations of the score. A solid rhythmic pulse was particularly noticeable in the dances and the Coin du Roi ensemble excelled in both crisp articulation. The continuo sections were especially eloquent.

Despite Frattima’s mastery of the score and some fine singing from Šimkus, it was once again the chorus of the superb Latvian Radio Choir which was the highlight of the performance. As in their earlier concert of Gregorian chants and English Baroque motets, this outstanding ensemble under the direction of Pēteris Vaickovskis justified Latvia’s well-earned reputation for choral excellence. Unlike Dido’s showstopping aria, this time there was no cause for lamentation.