I was reminded of one thing during this concert, and I think I may have learned a second thing. The first is the difference between your average run of the mill good but not stunning soprano voice and your international-stardom-and-obsessive-fanbase-creating voice. Except for Hélène Guilmette (Belinda) and Hank Neven (Aeneas) the other singers in this concert (a series of scenes and arias and instrumental music from Purcell’s operas in the first half, and then Dido and Aeneas after the jump) were also members of the chorus. I registered a series of light pretty soprano and mezzo voices in the various scenes – and then when Frau R sang “oh, let me weep” from The Fairy Queen suddenly every molecule of air in that hall was alive with sound.
It was a difference of volume and color and also a difference in style. One could probably claim with some justification that Röschmann was not operating in quite the same mode as the other singers. This is an opera with cackling witches (ably and humorously sung by Vicki St. Pierre, Lesley Emma Bousa and Shiela Dietrich), a light-hearted sailor song and charming little interlude airs in odd places, like the Second Woman’s “oft she visits” number in the hunt/storm scene. The scene from The Fairy Queen during the first part of the concert, with the belching drunken poet in which the music itself sounds a little drunk to match, or the chaconne from ditto a little later, is from a different opera, but not a different planet. It’s not that Dido and Aeneas isn’t the intended to be serious or moving – the beauty and delicacy of the instrumental music is proof enough of that – it’s just seriousness of a particular style. And then you’re hit with Röschmann’s “peace and I are strangers” and it’s like whoa where did THAT come from. But of course it’s obvious where it came from : it’s Dorothea Röschmann offering us her whole soul and beating heart from the very first moment of the performance. Whether that is how you like your Purcell is a different question. I am happy to go on record stating that I am more than happy to hear Purcell performed like Strauss if it works – and as far as I’m concerned, in this case it worked. The duet with Aeneas before he leaves Carthage, which appears in so many musical and textual guises in so many different operatic versions of this story that I have simply tagged it in my head as “Dido and Aeneas are fighting” – whatever you call it, it was electric. And Röschmann’s characteristic style does not rub the music the wrong way – in both “oh, let me weep” from The Fairy Queen and in Dido’s final lament, the instrumental accompaniment is subtle rather than torrential (in some parts, just the harpsichord, lute and a violin) but it’s more than capable of holding everything that she was pouring into it. (No doubt Richard Egarr, whose harpsichord stylings I have long admired, and Les Violons du Roy had something to do with the this too.)
And by the end, the drama had caught up to the interpretation. Dido* as performed by Frau R operates with this massive emotional force that makes the other characters seem less substantial – not poorly sung by any means, just not as powerful or vibrant, while Dido is just a sort of continuous storm of feeling. The “thy hand, Belinda” recitative that leads into “when I am laid in earth” was incredible – it was suddenly so intimate, and yet the overall scale had not changed: this was big enough for an opera stage but subtle as a song recital, and the way Röschmann shaped the music and text right then was one of those moments where she’s singing in English but it feels and sounds the way her singing does when she’s singing in German. I felt as if I was being shown precisely how opera is created, how something done on so large a scale can also be so subtle.
Stray observations: the scene where Dido and Aeneas are about to fall into one another’s arms – it is unclear to me why Belinda is in the room, other than to urge Dido on. Seems to me like that could get awkard real fast. Also, if you ever wondered how to say “come on, what could go wrong?” in sevententh-century English, I think it’s “fear no danger to ensue.”
After sticking around to clap for a very long time with everyone else, I went over to Alice Tully Hall for a second concert that I do not think I did full justice to as a listener because I was kind of wiped from the first one. This was a song recital by Sarah Connolly. (Where I wolfed a brownie during intermission in order to remain alert and also got to meet some Twitter buddies!)
*Every time I type “Dido” and then a space, my phone thinks I’m trying to type DiDonato. I guess this is what you might call a textbook case of reaping what you sow.