I know Purcell's tragic opera quite well, having studied it during my A-Level music lessons at school, having tried to master the famous aria, Dido's Lament, for a Grade VIII singing exam, and having once been involved in a performance with my father as conductor, at the Scarborough Girls' High School in Yorkshire, in 1965 or thereabouts. Once learned, never forgotten. Purcell did originally write the opera for a girls' school so our performance of it may have been more authentic than what I saw and heard in Ottawa this week, with the male parts --- Aeneas, the bawdy sailors, Jove's etherial messenger (up on the balcony) and the lower chorus parts --- performed by men. This performance by the Theatre of Early Music was directed by the internationally-known countertenor Daniel Taylor, who untied his long hair a couple of times to double as The Sorceress, singing in an extraordinarily high and loud falsetto register: had I not had my eyes open I'd have sworn it was a woman's voice. The instruments were of the period (lute, harpsichord, strings), played by seven musicians sitting on one side of the stage. Two scantily clad dancers with painted skins, one male (Bill Coleman), one female (Carol Prieur), also took part, who I believe were meant to represent the main characters' alter egos. Anyway they expressed in their fluid movements around the stage the emotions we were hearing in the arias and accompaniments.
The dramatis personae were not entirely static either, Dido (sung by the well cast Wallis Giunta) making some forceful hand and arm gestures. When, in the penultimate scene of this production, Aeneas (Geoffrey Sirett) comes towards her to proclaim that he is, after all, willing to renounce his destiny (as the founder of Rome / new Troy) to stay with her, she comes at him with a dagger she has concealed somewhere in her flowing robes, a most dramatic moment.
"By all that's good...!" Aeneas pleads.
"No more!" she interrupts, brandishing the dagger. "All that's good thou hast foresworn! To thy promised Empire fly, and let forsaken Dido die! ... Away! Away!"
And he goes. She then stabs herself with the dagger she has to hand and a silky red ribbon of blood cascades down the front of her white dress.
I was startled by this, as I knew she still had a long, breath-consuming aria to sing before expiring. (In our school production Dido had stabbed herself after the Lament.) "Thy hand, Belinda! Darkness shades me. On thy bosom let me rest. More I would, but Death invades me. Death is now a welcome guest."
I was interested and thrilled by the ornamentation Ms. Giunta added to her long phrases.
I enjoyed the two witches as well, their scene introduced by a foot-stamping chorus, who gleefully join the Sorceress in casting the spell or curse on Dido, whom they call Elissa: "Elissa's ruined, she's ruined! Destruction's our delight, delight our greatest sorrow! ... Our plot has took! The Queen's foresook! ... Elissa bleeds tonight, and Carthage flames tomorrow!"
It is a melodramatic story, great fun for schoolgirls.
Purcell's inspired music was still echoing in my head after the intermission, when the Swiss banjo player Jens and his guitarist brother Uwe, the Kruger Brothers, came in, as the next part of the evening's entertainment. They were accompanied by a Russian Jewish gentleman who played bass guitar, and by a string quartet (familiar Ottawa musicians).
"We're immigrants!" said Jens Kruger, emphatically, to appreciative applause from the audience, immigrants being so much in the news lately. The brothers had emigrated from Switzerland to North Carolina where they now live, and still use elements of Swiss folk music in what they play. Jens, who still speaks with a Swiss accent and has a Swiss sense of humour, is the composer; he says he used to ride a horse to school. He mentioned the wild horses who live in North Carolina too. His music contains all of this: the elements of the different influences and experiences he has absorbed. The Kruger trio began as a traditional bluegrass group, but "in a spirit of going forward" has progressed from this to playing semi-classical music.
Jens Kruger's Appalachian Concerto began with a tremolo from the six accompanying musicians, with the banjo prominent on top. The rest of first movement was fast and energetic, the second movement lyrical and the third rhythmic, with virtuoso flourishes for the banjoist.
The string players' eyes are glued to their music, but the trio plays entirely from memory, making for an interesting contrast. They did two encores as well, one of these jokingly quoting Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik and ending with a bluegrass flourish, thus: