If this concert had ended after an hour, honour would have been satisfied, but probably not the box-office. Purcell’s opera about love and loss is the ultimate operatic jewel, with a value disproportionate to its size.
You could have left the Usher Hall after Nicholas McGegan’s performance with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, without feeling even slightly short-changed. I’ve heard the opera done in stand-alone fashion, and as Purcell’s dying cadences fall away, you do feel there’s nothing more that music or words can say.
McGegan revealed far more syncopation than I ever knew existed in this score: very engaging, especially in the guitar-accompanied choruses. Jane Irwin’s Dido was regal and chastely sung in a house-filling way, but a little reluctant to colour the words. Roderick Williams made a credible Aeneas, Jennifer Johnston a far-from-caricatured Sorceress.
But modern festival economics demand a full evening’s programme, and that’s where problems start: what on earth do you pair with Dido? Jonathan Mills, the new director of the Edinburgh International Festival, chose Prima la musica, poi le parole, Salieri’s one-act satire about prima donnas, poets and composers. You can see Mills’s reasoning. )
Both operas are legitimate add-ons to the Orpheus theme running through his festival programme – Purcell illustrating the power of song to express deep human emotions, Salieri disporting on the relative merits of words and music (a theme to be discussed at greater length atTuesday’s performance of Capriccio
This marriage of Purcell and Salieri was the first serious miscalculation of Mills’s regime. It showed that themed programming has pitfalls, because not every work on a given theme is of a given quality.
With its reams of generic music, Salieri’s garrulous comedy fell flat. The cast – the excellent Williams again, this time joined by Neal Davies, Giselle Allen and Gillian Keith – did their best to communicate the fun, but the snap and crackle would have come across far better in English. The programme book (if you could find one – a constant failure of the Usher Hall management this summer) did a cut-and-paste of the libretto, with huge chunks inexplicably missing.
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