Dido and Aeneas, Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London

In a Proms season dominated on the operatic side by overblown war epics, thank God for Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Berlioz's take on the Aeneid - The Trojans - took up most of last week's bank holiday; Purcell's succinct little masterpiece fitted snugly into the hour before closing time.

Late Proms, often a repository for some of the festival's more leftfield dabbling, usually have a certain amount of atmosphere to them even if you can sometimes hear tumbleweed rustling around the upper tiers. Here, though, a complete programme of familiar music brought a near-capacity audience.

The forces, too, were a draw: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment backed by its own, classy chorus, directed from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr. His method of conducting - straddling a piano stool turned lengthways, leading with vigorous nods and rolls of the head -may be unconventional but his exuberance brought many rewards. In the overture, the smooth, interlacing lines of the first section morphed seamlessly into a punchy allegro; the duet for Carolyn Sampson's radiant Belinda and Elizabeth Cragg's bright Second Woman went with a real swing.

But this wasn't simply a fashionably zippy baroque reading. Indeed, Dido's final aria was taken so slowly that it would have defeated a lesser singer than Sarah Connolly. She was a reserved, regal queen, yet her supremely controlled, velvety phrases conveyed much, and the sudden tiny stab of vulnerability leading in to her final aria was all the more moving for her earlier composure.

Egarr had ideas of his own, eschewing melodrama and unsubtle comedy and even bypassing the grotesquery that often infuses the coven scenes. Instead of a counter-tenor drag-queen with a couple of old hags in tow, there was the bass-baritone D'Arcy Bleiker as the Sorceress, supported by Anna Dennis and Alexandra Gibson, two well-matched and initially rather polite witches. Hectoring impressively from behind the orchestra, Bleiker was more than a match for Christopher Purves's well-projected but slightly husky Aeneas.

Elsewhere, this was a performance of small, effective touches, from the way of producing the echo effects in the coven chorus by having four of the singers simply turn their backs, to the often-omitted guitar duet in the woodland scene, played so softly that even the harpsichord seemed to clang in comparison. It was a reminder of how perfectly formed this small opera is, and what a wealth of approaches it can accommodate.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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