La Didone

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Composer: Francesco Cavalli

Libretto: Giovanni Francesco Busenello

after Virgil’s Aeneid

First Produced: Venice, 1641

Present Company: Théâtre de Caen 2011

Director: Clément Hervieu-Léger

Sets: Éric Ruf

Costumes: Caroline de Vivaise

Lighting: Bertrand Couderc

Film Director: Olivier Simonnet

BD Producer: James Whitbourn

Orchestra: Les Arts Florissants

Conductor: William Christie



Didone: Anna Bonitatibus

Enea: Kresimir Spicer

Iarba: Xavier Sabata

Ascanio / Amore: Terry Wey

Venere / Iride: Claire Debono

Cassandra: Katherine Watson

Ilioneo / Mercurio: Mathias Vidal

Creusa / Giunone: Tehila Nini Goldstein

Acate / Sicheo / Grecco: Joseph Cornwell

Anna / Fortuna: Mariana Rewerski

Giove / Nettuno: Francisco Javier Borda

Corebo / Eolo: Valerio Contaldo

Ecuba: Maria Streijffert

Anchise: Victor Torres



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 43.10 GB

Bit Rate: Moderate (18-27 Mbps)

Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1

Italian LPCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, French & German

Region: All

Opera runtime: 176 minutes

Opus Arte, 2012



Conception & Staging: A

Costumes: A

Casting: A

Singing: A

Orchestra: A+

Music Direction: A+

Video Direction: A

Image: A

Audio: A

Extras Features: D

Recommendation: A



The names may have changed but you will no doubt recognize the players from Berlioz’ Les Troyens or Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas if not the original source: Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneis, written some 20-30 years before the birth of that well-known Jewish carpenter’s son.  But first, a word about the mid-seventeenth century Venetian composer: Francesco Cavalli – not as well known today as Claudio Monteverdi, though more of his operas have survived than his more famous predecessor.  It is fair to credit Cavalli with giving what we call “opera” a serious kick in the pants into the public eye.



Cavalli’s predecessor and to some extent, teacher, Claudio Monteverdi, may be the first important composer of opera - he wrote perhaps eighteen operas, but only three have survived – L’Orfeo (1609), Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) - all of which demand you attention if you don’t already know them.  [I had the good fortune of helping Alan Curtis prepare the score for Poppea for its first West Coast premiere in 1965-66.  A fascinating learning experience it was.]  Monteverdi is what we think of as a court composer, and his works reflected the resources available to him.  Cavalli wrote music for the public and his works are considerably scaled down, not so much in length as the musical forces needed to execute them.



Cavalli, at least in the present opera, will undoubtedly strike contemporary ears as constrained and earthbound, for the orchestra is limited and there are no arias at all – not as we think of them from Gluck onward.  Rather, the entire three hours is comprised of a series of inflected recitatives. Even what Cavalli would consider arias are just than extensions of his recitatives - emotionally enhanced and supported by the subtlest instrumental additions.  The orchestra, such as it is, comes in at full force only in moments – few and far between – where emotional affect is stressed and for the occasional chorus.  What is amazing is how much depth of feeling can be contained and expressed in such an apparently limited musical vocabulary.  Moments of anguish, which pretty much tells the story here, are particularly touching.  Give a listen, even out of context to either of Cassandra’s lament from the first act or Ilioneo’s second act plea to Dido for the protection of the newly arrived Trojans, and not least, Aeneas’ anguished, yet exquisite soliloquy as he takes his leave of Dido.  You may find that Puccini and Verdi have nothing on this composer.  Of course such a rarefied level of expression cannot be achieved without singers especially skilled in the art.



Lest you think that La Didone is merely a series of sturm und drang, there is some pretty comic stuff afoot here, supplied mostly by the gods, who, in this staging, often lurk about or intermingle with the human characters on stage.  Excitable creatures, these, who simply can’t get over the level of power they wield or wish they could when confronted with other gods whose loyalties lay elsewhere.


This element of the story, as it was in Homer’s Iliad, is the heart of the matter.  We humans play out their little and not so little games for their pleasure.  Our own squabbles and jealousies are nothing compared to a Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite or Neptune whose dander is up, not least when they procreate with humans.  Achilles may have been the son of the nymph Thetis, but Aeneas went him one better, the son of Venus.  As it happens, Juno has aligned herself against Venus and thus against Aeneas.  Juno brings to bear a powerful storm against his fleet as he sails from Troy to North Africa, but Neptune intervenes at the behest of Juno.  Aeneas is keenly aware that supernatural forces are at work here, and drolly comments as much upon his arrival at Carthage.



The Story

The action begins where the Brad Pitt leaves off: Troy is in flames. The Greeks are running amuck.  Trojans are in tears, lamenting the loss of their city, their men and their future. This is where Aeneas comes in, for he represents continuity, even it be in a faraway land.  The death of his wife at first hinders his progress – even heroes get depressed - but then makes his leaving possible.  What is left for him there.  In any case, the gods, his gods, will it so and Cassandra has foretold it.


The second act moves the action from Troy to Carthage, just as does Berlioz, and introduces us to several new characters:  Dido, now queen of Carthage whose husband was killed by her own brother in Tyre, from which country she emigrated to Carthage; Iarbas, himself the son of an African god (funnily enough named Jupiter Hammon) and a king who pines for the loveless Dido; and Anna, Dido’s sister. At Venus’ bidding, Cupid disguises himself as Ascanio, Aeneas’ son, to act as beard for the unwitting Aeneas and Dido.


The final act describes Dido’s fall and disgrace by Aeneas.  She had kept Love at a distance since the death of her husband and focused on matters of State as regards her new home.  But she is outnumbered: there are forces at work here beyond her ken, moreover she is counseled by her sister to accept Aeneas as a lover.  The bigger they are, the harder they fall, as the saying goes, and Dido is perhaps the best example of how deeply she falls into love for Aeneas, so that when he leaves, as he must, Betrayal and Humiliation lead her to only one recourse.  She kills herself, but somehow rises to Iarbas’ lament.  For my money, this is the single weakness of the opera, which had so embraced Tragedy and Fate up until now.  Happily, the moment is brief, and the production ends on an ambiguous note.




The venue is Théâtre de Caen - that’s Caen, not Cannes, located at the other end of the country in Normandy. Their musical ensemble in residence is Les Arts Florissants, which has been around since 1982. The staging, while sparse, is never tiring: an aperture in the middle rear of the stage through which actors enter and leave, in addition to the right and left.  The lighting tapers off in those directions to suggest a kind of timeless mist.  Very subtle.  A modern erector set appears in every act into and through which various characters find their way and entreat those remaining on stage.  It shouldn’t work, but it does.  Costumes are surprisingly simple and consistent for just about everyone: a mere single-hued drape, sometimes worn under a tailored cloak.  The women, all quite busty, are sexual beings that use their wiles to attract, distract and urge the men.

The present production encourages a sort of through-composed feel to the score.  Mute characters will appear and interact with those singing on the stage, and one number leads to the next in a way that feels downright overlapping.  There’s not even a break between second and third acts.



The Music

At the height of the LP-era Decca recorded several of his operas (notably L’Ormindo and La Calisto) on their Argo label.  Though performance traditions were “updated” and cut by Raymond Leppard in his own editions, they remained top-notch examples of what could be done musically and technically in that medium.  The current recording by the Baroque ensemble Les Paladins adheres to a more authentic text and to historically informed performance practice, and is none the worse for it. The cast is vocally top-notch and all throw themselves into their roles with enthusiasm.




The orchestra under the redoubtable William Christie, their current music director,plays wonderfully, with subtle sensitivity and dramatic flair even with a small handful of instruments at their disposal.  With over a dozen singers, all of whom have very exposed parts, there is opportunity for weakness, but there aren’t any really.  And except for one - and that, perhaps a matter of degree than kind - everyone is on the same page about vocal production.  So let’s talk about that for a moment.


Vibrato is both a spontaneously occurring and cultured part of one’s vocal (or instrumental) production. Whatever one has naturally can be trained to be faster or slower, heavier or lighter, or absent entirely.  As much as anything, the way one projects their vibrato identifies that singer: think of Edith Piaf or Judy Garland (both of whom make me cry, but from different parts of my soul), or Buffy St. Marie (who makes me nauseous.) Try to imagine Sinatra without his characteristic use of vibrato, or Julie Andrews, whose vibrato is so light, you are commanded to observe the delicacies of the melody and her un-erring pitch. Streisand is an interesting case - I’ll let you figure that one out. The same is true for classically trained singers: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has the effect of Valium, Peter Pears is ghostly, gripping, Renee Fleming is like melted caramel, and Marilyn Horne, a fine bronze metallic mesh.


A little oversimplified for discussion, there are two styles of singing Western art music: with and without vibrato.  The latter is often associated with pre-eighteenth century sacred music and exceedingly difficult to bring off in falsetto, of which there is a great deal in this opera from Iarba and Amore.  Very few modern day popular artists sing without vibrato, the most notable exception perhaps are The Roches, who take the idea to spine-tingling delights.  Opera is generally performed with vibrato.  It is most easily heard at the end of phrases when a note is held for a length of time.  American popular song artists make quite a thing of it, often delaying vibrato until the last possible moment.  Hold that thought.


Performance practice back in the Baroque and Classical periods (17th-18th centuries) made frequent use of various types of trills and other ornamentations, many of which were improvised during performance.  The same was true for instrumental music, solo, ensemble or accompanying.  The difficulty arises when a singer’s vibrato gets in the way of these subtler melodic turns. This happens rarely (cf: my notes about Angela Denoke’s Salome), but my radar seems to be sensitive to it.  I can’t say the same is true for many listeners; all the same I feel it’s worth noting. . . which brings us to La Didone and Anna Bonitatibus.  Ms Bonitatibus has exactly the right understanding of her character: regal, depressed, vulnerable, focused, female.  She has the state of her people in mind at all times - until she falls in love.  She looks and acts the part, and she has the right voice to project Dido’s temperament. . . except that she has a pronounced vibrato that utterly demolishes the trill.  If there are any, we wouldn’t know it.

There are all degrees of vibrato in the singing for this performance, but hers is the only one that causes me concern.  Mathias Vidal in both his roles as Ilioneo and Mercury leans in this direction but doesn’t cross the line.  Dido is the title character and appears in a fraction more scenes than anyone else (8 of 32), and accounts of maybe 5% of the singing, so there is plenty else to savor.  As I say, none of this may bother you in the least - lucky you.



Video & Image

Film Director Olivier Simonne mixes up shots from angles whose existence we can scarcely explain and yet supports and tells the story in all its aching passion. My only complaint, though no fault of his I’d wager, is that the long limbed theorbo sticks its neck above the stage and on longer shots tends to sneak into the frame.  Opus Arte’s image is demonstration quality. No hiccups of any kind.




Opus Arte provides their usual uncompressed surround and stereo mixes.  Both are excellent with natural, unclipped voices and robust, detailed playing from the orchestra.  Given the subtlety of Cavalli’s instrumentation, particularly the continuo, the audio mixes do a splendid job at expressing detail and that wonderful hum of support.  The surround is especially good.



Alas, nowhere to be found is a proper synopsis, despite the booklet.  With what little material is included in the featured essay along with the excellent subtitles for its complicated libretto, it is possible to sort out the players soon after they enter the stage.  The pictorial Cast Gallery helps as well, but no one thought to add the relationship of one character to another.




For those accustomed only to eighteenth and nineteenth century opera and performance, even those performances that try to honor the original practice, Francesco Cavalli will take a little getting used to, but I think just a little patience will be amply rewarded.  If nothing else, the style is hypnotic and meditative.  As for the singing and acting, I have to say I was quite taken with this performance and its production, my complaint about Bonitatibus notwithstanding.  I never lost interest and found the various bits of staging engaging.  Both video and audio are excellent. An despite, the lack of bonus features or even so much as a synopsis, I give this recording very high marks indeed.

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

October 12, 2012

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