THE GRAMOPHONE Incorporating VOX, THE RADIO CRITIC and BROADCAST REVIEW
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COMPTON MACKENZIE and CHRISTOPHER STONE
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PURCELL'S opera Dido and Aeneas was first performed round ahout the year of the Inglorious Revolution in 1688 or 89 at a girls' school in Chelsea kept by one J osias Priest, who was a dancing master and, i t would seem, familiar with the theatrical world. One would give much for an account of that Chelsea school by Pepys, or indeed by anybody. After the first performance no performance of the opera is known to have been given before 1895, a catalepsy of over two centuries, beating Rip van Winkle, Brunnhilda, and the Sleeping Beauty. Presumably all the parts except Aeneas and his crew of jolly Jack Tars were taken by the girls of the school. We do not know who played Aeneas, but he was a lucky fellow. The first gramophone version of the opera has been made by the Decca Company on seven discs at 5s. each. The actual recording seems to me the best which Decca has yet achieved. The music is beautifully played by the Boyd Neel Orchestra under Clarence Raybould with the invaluable support of Bernard Ord at the harpsichord. I wish I could praise with equal enthusiasm the singers, , except Roy Henderson, who gives the recitative of
Aeneas extremely well, although even he does not make nearly enough of his words clearly distinguishable. The women between them could only make one word distinguishable for me at a first hearing, and that was "languish." Fortunately, the Oxford University Press have brought out a most agreeably printed score edited by Mr. Edwar'd Dent, which includes not only the English words, but a German singing translation. I t is true that the libretto is pretty poor stufl', but i ts absurdity and artificiality are no excuse for failure to enunciate the words clearly.
Dido is played by Miss Nancy Evans, who possesses a typical English contralto but lacks dramatic power. Experience will no doubt improve her as a singer, but we have so many typical English contraltos able to get so far and no farther. Still, i t would be unfair to be too pessimistic about her future merely on the strength of a recorded performance. One would have to see and hear her on the stage before deciding finally about her dramatic ability. Miss Mary Hamlin as Belinda, the ladyin-waiting, a typical seventeenth-century product and a poor substitute for Dido's sister Anna in the Virgilian
narrative, is less successful than :Miss Evans, and she has an easier part. Miss Hamlin is sadly afraid of her vowels. It was no douht careless of Purcell to give " the" a minim in the Fear No Danger aria, hut that is no justification for pronouncing i t "ther." I t is agony for a lover of English to listen to such maltreatment of the language. Miss Hamlin is also sadly afraid of her " you," a broad vowel sound which would stand a breve, let alone a minim. Miss Mary Jarred as the Sorceress is the best of the women, and that she is no t more effective may he blamed on the childish music which Purcell has written for this sorceress, who enters like King Rat in a pantomime of Dick Whittington. Purcell cannot be acquitted of triviality in his music of the infernal regions; after all, he lived in a cent.ury during which over England and Scotland witches were being burnt alive every week, and presumahly they were seriously regarded by an audience and not as we regard the demon kings of pantomime.
Mr. Dent claims for Dido and Aeneas that "even when represented with the humblest resoUl'ces Pureell's music has a dramatic poignancy and beauty wllich is not surpassed, if indeed it. even he equalled, in the more famous works of Gluck." Such a claim staggers me, and that i t can be made by a critic of Mr. Dent's eminence indicates clearly the hopeless sense of inferiority from which English music has sufl'ered for two and a half centUl'ies. Such a claim is Oil a par with the outhurst every January in Scotland proclaiming Burns to he the equal if not the superior of Shakespeare. That. there are moments of ravishing beauty in Dido and Aeneas will be denied by nohody pretending to taste, hut the work as a whole cannot he mentioned in the same breath as the Alceste or the two Jphigenies or the Orphee et Eurydice of Gluck. The most famous ar'ia in the opera, Dido's farewen to life, When f am laid in earth, can he profoundly moving when supremely well sung, but to compare i t with the lament of Orpheus for Eurydice in Gluck's opera is to compare the weeping cheruhs on a seventeenth - centnry tomb with the Demeter of Cnidos. The verv words of the chorus which accompany this aria, .
"With drooping wings, ye Cupids, come,
And scatter roses on her tomh,"