‘The only perfect English opera ever written’

Which one? And who said this? Some of you will know and agree; but the reality is that when Gustav Holst made this assertion about Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas‘, he was not claiming anything too outrageous at the time. Holst died in 1934, and therefore missed out on the period when English opera came to fruition: until the mid twentieth century, opera was more the preserve of the French, German, Italian and Russian languages, but all that changed with Benjamin Britten. Amongst his repertoire, some might now say that ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘ could take that accolade, or even ‘Peter Grimes‘, but it would be interesting to know if Holst would have altered his view a hundred years later – about an opera first performed in 1689. I notice that Holst died just a year before the first performance of Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess‘, (with its wonderful numbers of ‘Summertime‘ and ‘I got plenty of nuttin’‘) which in my book is a stronger contender than Britten, but as always it comes down to personal taste.

What is surely beyond dispute, however, is that Dido’s lament, at the end of this short three act opera, is one of the most agonizingly beautiful passages ever written for the human voice. Henry Purcell (1659-95) focused most of his musical composition on sacred music, especially for Westminster Abbey, where he was later buried right next to the instrument he played. He is probably the first composer to be born in this country to receive any proper recognition – and you then have to fast forward a couple of hundred years before Elgar resurrected some kind of English tradition.

Dame Janet Baker (born 1933) is still the singer against whom all subsequent recordings are judged, but the sound quality is poor and so I have delayed writing about this piece due to my inability to find a more recent version which comes anywhere near her account. Until now. By pure chance, I heard this account on the radio last week and in an instant I knew this was in a league of its own; and, dare I suggest it, every bit as moving as the dame herself. The singer is the American Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died prematurely of breast cancer at the age of 52, having nursed her sister through the same final illness only years before. Good execution of this is not enough: what is really required is soul, and Hunt Lieberson delivers this in bucket-loads.

If you have not heard this lament before, there is just over a minute of recitative (singing speech) first – so don’t hang up before 1:11! Purcell’s mastery is to use the absolute minimum at his disposal to evoke a near unbearable yearning, every climbing phrase then cascading downwards, underpinned by a simple base. The cry to ‘Remember me’, repeated once and then again higher and more despairingly, is deeply moving. And don’t underestimate the effect of the closing bars on the strings either: it all adds up to three minutes of painful, tragic, beauty.

 

8 thoughts on “‘The only perfect English opera ever written’”

  1. I thought you might like to see a contemporary criticism of the first performance of Dido and Aeneas which I discovered when I was researching the career of Edward Clarke MP (1650 -1710) whose two daughters attended Priest’s school in 1690.
    Josias Priest (d 1734) was a dancing master who with his wife kept a fashionable boarding school for young ladies at Gorges House, Chelsea, where music and the arts were cultivated; the scholars learned to “japan boxes and to dance”. The first performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (with a topical reference in prologue to William and Mary as Phoebus and Venus) was given there by the girls in July 1689. Priest commissioned the opera and arranged the dances. Mary Clarke, the children’s mother lived mainly in Somerset and asked a friend Mrs Buck to report on various schools and she said Priest’s school was “much commended; but he hath lately had an opera, which I’me sure hath done him a great injurey; and ye parents of ye children not satisfied with so publick a show”. After Dido and Aeneas his partnership with Purcell moved on to the public stage; he arranged dances for The Prophetess 1690, King Arthur 1691 and The Fairy Queen in 1692.

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