DidoneFrancesco Cavalli - La Didone

Théâtre de Caen, 2011 | William Christie, Clément Herve-Léger, Anna Bonitatibus, Kresimir Spicer, Xavier Sabata, Maria Streijffert, Terry Wey, Katherine Watson, Tehila Nini Goldstein, Claire Debono, Joseph Cornwell, Victor Torres, Valerio Contaldo, Mariana Rewerski, Matthias Vidal, Francisco Javier Borda | Opus Arte

Depending on the work, depending on who is playing it and depending on how it is staged, Cavalli’s operas - some of the oldest works in existence - can struggle to hold the attention of a modern audience. They can be long, usually based on classical subjects, consist of long stretches of recitative accompanied principally on harpsichord and lyrone basso continuo with a limited range of period string instruments. There’s little in the works that lends itself to exciting staging in the way of, for example, the French regal entertainments of Lully and Campra, with all their ballet sequences and choral arrangements. There are no such difficulties with this particular work - one of Cavalli’s earliest operas first performed in 1641 - a version of the familiar story of the Fall of Troy and the love story of Dido and Aeneas, and with the production being in the hands of William Christie and his company, Les Arts Florissants, there are no concerns either about the musical interpretation of La Didone, which is staged with dramatic intensity by Clément Herve-Léger.

What makes La Didone rather more accessible than some works of early opera is the libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, the librettist responsible for Monteverdi’s ground-breaking L’Incoronazione di Poppea, an opera that daringly put real characters onto the stage for the first time rather than the gods and heroes of ancient mythology. Even though La Didone is related to the mythological figures of Virgil’s epic Latin poem ‘The Aeneid‘, it benefits nonetheless from Busenello’s wonderful humanising of the characters and indeed the gods. The libretto isn’t made up of the usual vague pronouncements and declarations, but is dramatically and poetically expressive of the range of human emotions and passions that are brought out by this expansive work. In the first half - in the model followed by Berlioz in the now more familiar Les Troyens - the libretto captures the true horror and nature of the experience of war, the destruction of one’s country and with it one’s hopes and dreams. The second half also corresponds with Berlioz’s division, with Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage and with the trials that are brought by love and betrayal, expressed in a variety of ways, through Dido’s love for her dead husband, her rejection of Iarbas, and in her love for Aeneas’ that is curtailed by his sense of duty (to the gods) to abandon her and strike out for Italy.

This wonderfully rich story is brilliantly described in Busenello’s libretto, but if it truly achieves the same kind of expression of human passions that can be found in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, it’s also due to the musical compositions of Cavalli, himself a pupil of Monteverdi. William Christie directs this from the harpsichord and the rhythms and tone are clear, precise and dynamically attuned to the emotional content of the work, emphasising the horror with driving chords and accompanying the delicate laments and love-songs with heartfelt lyricism. Even without a synopsis (there isn’t a detailed one with this DVD/BD release unfortunately), it’s not difficult to follow what is going on thanks to the clear libretto where figures introduce themselves naturally, and due to the musical accompaniment that defines them. This is particularly strong in the tricky first Act, where in addition to gods directing the events, numerous figures wander around the dark ruins of Troy in despair, terrorised by marauding Greeks - Coroebus dying in the arms of Cassandra, Hecuba’s despair for the fate of the women, Aeneas’s wife Creusa murdered and returning as a ghostly figure. Appropriately then, it all looks and sounds like the Hades of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo supplanted into the hell of a destroyed Troy.

Things actually become a little more confusing in the Carthage sections in this production with the doubling up of roles, when the same singer who played Aeneas’ dead wife Creusa in Act 1 (Tehila Nini Goldstein) turns up in Act 2 as Juno trying to destroy him. Even trickier, Cupid disguises himself as Aeneas’ son Ascanio in Act 2 to bring about the love between Aeneas and Dido, so although it makes for a convincing disguise when both Cupid and Ascanio are played by the same person (Terry Wey), it could be just a little confusing. (The chaptering, available as a pop-up on BD, will however clarify any other confusion over which characters are singing at any time). The fact that it works is down to the strong direction and staging working in perfect accordance with the music and the drama of the libretto. Clément Herve-Léger keeps the sets simple, employing only one or two large and effective symbolic gestures. It’s not period, but other than the inappropriate scaffolding for the down-to-earth gods and Venus lugging a suitcase for her journey to Carthage - an effort to humanise the appearances of the gods in line with the nature of the work and against the tradition of big fanfares and mechanical stage entrances - there are no distracting modern anachronisms.

With the simplicity of the staging and the sparseness of the orchestration, compared to conventional opera, much depends on the quality of the singing here. Populated extensively from Christie’s ‘Jardin des Voix‘ school for new young talent, the singing is exceptional right across the whole cast. Anna Bonitatibus is a clear, powerful and resonant Didone (Dido), and Kresimir Spicer a gentle lyrical Enea (Aeneas), both of them commanding and deeply expressive in the central roles, but the cast - clearly trained for this kind of singing - is made up of youthful voices filled with passion, clarity and a purity of tone that is well suited to early opera (some however - such as Francisco Javier Borda playing both Ilioneo and Mercury - try a little too hard). La Didone is still not without some longeurs for anyone unfamiliar with early opera, but this is certainly one of the more accessible works of this period, treated to a beautiful looking and fresh sounding production from Les Arts Florissants, that brings a much needed vitality to this rare 370 year-old work.

Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release comes with impressive specifications in terms of High Definition image and sound. The period instruments in particular have a wonderful clarity of tone within the natural reverb of the Caen theatre. It sounds a little bright and there’s no low-frequency range at all in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, but it’s distributed well emphasising the fragility of the delicate playing and the strength of the vocal expression. The PCM Stereo mix is also clear and true. The BD is dual-layer BD50, 1080i and all-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French and German only. There are no extra features other than a Cast Gallery and a booklet with an essay on the work which has a brief outline of the story, but there is no detailed synopsis.