“The BBC Proms is a classical music festival held every summer at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and in recent years has explored new venue spaces through the innovative Proms at… series of events. Its aim: to bring the best in classical music to the widest possible audience, which remains true to founder-conductor Henry Wood’s original vision in 1895.”
Director: David Pickard
19 July 2022
Royal Albert Hall
Dido and Aeneas
La Nuova Musica
David Bates Conductor
What better way to test the Royal Albert Hall’s new air cooling system than to subject it to a late Prom on the hottest London night ever. Hooray, it passed!
While the pavements steamed and the prommers sweltered in the foyers, the hall itself was very comfortable. An hour of Purcell was the perfect way to calm the senses after the stressful day fighting the +40 temperature, though of course TfL (Transport Against Londoners) did its best to making getting home as tough as possible.
As to the music itself, David Bates’ group is said to have been formed to liven up baroque works and he certainly went about it with gusto. Sadly, Dido is not the work to try it on. If the continuo group is expanded to include four theorbos, a couple of guitars and harps, as well as the harpsichord, Purcell’s restrained and poignant arias become overloaded. The delicate cello ‘ground bass’ is drowned out by all the strumming. The first beat of every bar is leant on with thumping emphasis. Carthage becomes Andalusia. The violin group was large too, which means that it can lose definition – the sort of precision that Purcell would have got from his theatre band when Dido was first performed down the road by the river in Chelsea, close to what is now Battersea Bridge (then just a landing stage – the house that held Josiah Priest’s dancing school is still there).
While Bates’s interpretation was heavy handed, his singers were altogether impressive. The chorus were stars in themselves, every word clear, every chord beautifully blended (though the ‘r’s of ‘too dreadful a practice’ do not have to come out as ‘drrrrrrrreadful a prrrrrrrractice’) and the final chorus of ‘with drooping wings’ was properly heart-rending.
Among the soloists Gemma Summerfield as Belinda truly shone. She caught the desperation of trying to stop Dido throwing away her throne and her life and she also used the hall’s acoustics best. There is always the tendency to think that such a big space needs big noises to fill it. It does not. Articulation and projection do the job without the need to force – a trap that both Alice Coote, as Dido, and James Newby, as Aeneas, occasionally teetered on the edge of. The Sorceress and her two witches – Madeleine Shaw, Helen Charlston and Martha McLorinan – were suitably formidable. I am fast becoming a true fan of Charlston’s rich alto sound. On the other hand Nicky Spence’s cameo in costume between a couple of semi-naked sailors raised a laugh but was just too camp for words.
Everything, of course, leads to Dido’s Lament and that final, devastating, chorus; the moments when Purcell rivalled Monteverdi and Cavalli for the first time on an English stage. Alice Coote draws out all the pathos, the waste, the futility of the song – after which, as for Dido herself, nothing much matters.