Cavalli: La Didone / Bonitatibus, Spicer, Sabata, Christie

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One of the first operas deserving of the name, Didone is our first surviving musical version of the famous episode in Virgil's Aeneid where the Trojan hero loves and then cruelly leaves the noble Dido. Cavalli learnt at the feet of Monteverdi, and his dramatic transformation of the story is all the more expressive for its intimacy, worthy of the examples set by his master. At the centre of this bold and simple staging – the first opera production by comic actor Clément Hervieu-Léger – is the Queen of Carthage herself, sung with uncompromising intensity by Anna Bonitatibus. William Christie and his singers and players show themselves entirely attuned to the world of Cavalli, where meaning and music fuse.

Didone – Anna Bonitatibus
Enea – Kresimir Spicer
Iarba – Xavier Sabata
Ecuba – Maria Streijffert
Cassandra – Katherine Watson

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie, conductor

Clément Hervieu-Léger, stage director

Recorded live at the Théâtre de Caen, October 2011

Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: LPCM 2.0 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, French, German
Running time: 176 mins
No. of DVDs: 1

R E V I E W:

This is the Cavalli DVD to own; it should also appeal to Monteverdi fans.

The recording companies have been doing well by Cavalli; Opus Arte have also given us a good recording of Ercole Amante on DVD and blu-ray (OA1020D/OABD7050D) and Dynamic have recently released CD and DVD/blu-ray recordings of Il Giasone. I enjoyed this new recording of La Didone at least as much as that of Ercole and much more than Il Giasone, where a good set of performances is vitiated for me by an over-busy production - see September Roundup. Fortunately the subject matter of La Didone mostly precludes the foolery which spoiled Il Giasone; even the temporary madness of Iarbas is sensitively handled.
The title might lead you to believe that La Didone covers only the same ground as Purcell’s Dido and Æneas, the fourth book of Virgil’s Æneid, but you’ll see from the inclusion of characters such as Cassandra and Anchises that it begins with the fall of Troy, as narrated in the earlier books of that work. The Prologue and Act 1 are set amid the ruins of Troy, vaguely suggested by the background.
Nor does the work end as you might expect with the death of Dido - instead she marries her long-time suitor Iarbas. There is some small justification for that in that Iarbas is at least mentioned by Virgil as having sought to marry Dido ( Æneid 4.195-218) and by Ovid, though the latter makes him invade Carthage after the death of Dido. Cavalli’s librettist took up the rage which possessed Iarbas on hearing of Dido’s love for Æneas: “protinus ad regem cursus detorquet Iarban/incenditque animum dictis atque aggerat iras.” (soon [the rumour] made its way round to King Iarbas, inflamed his mind with what was being said and stirred up his anger.) In this production the happy ending is sensitively handled, with Dido urged to suicide by the ghost of her husband but saved at the last moment by the fidelity of Iarbas who has been divinely saved from his madness. In this production, though Dido agrees to marry Iarbas, the mood remains sombre, as if she has in fact died spiritually, a neat solution, though one that is somewhat at odds with the words and music of rejoicing at that point:
Godiam dunque godiamo
sereni i dì, e ridenti,
né pur pronunciamo
il nome de’ tormenti.

If that makes it seem as if the librettist had been playing around unduly with Virgil, it’s worth remembering that Purcell’s took equally great liberties in introducing the witches and making Mercury into a creature of theirs. Mercury is in fact a very serious messenger indeed in Virgil, as he is in Cavalli where the use of the epithet pio echoes Virgil’s oft-used epithet pius Æneas, with a stern message from Jupiter to stop womanising and get on with the job of founding the Roman Empire. In another departure from Virgil in la Didone, Æneas’ father Anchises is still alive when they arrive in Carthage.
What Cavalli has taken on in dealing with the fall of Troy and the loves of Dido and Æneas in one opera is certainly daunting; Purcell limited himself to the second half of the story. Berlioz originally had to split the action across two operas, as Colin Davis also did with the Chelsea Opera Group production with which he made his name as a Berlioz interpreter and which was my own introduction to Les Troyens. At almost three hours, La Didone is certainly a work of heavenly length, as, indeed is Ercole Amante, but neither outstays its welcome. It’s a fine work in the tradition of his teacher Monteverdi. The blurb describes it as ‘one of the earliest operas deserving of the name’, which begs the question what the others were, but it certainly fits. 
There is an earlier recording, edited and conducted by Fabio Biondi on Dynamic DVD 33537 and CD, CDS537. Like the present recording it was recorded live; with both you have to ignore a certain amount of stage shuffle. We don’t seem to have reviewed it on MusicWeb International but it received a mixed reception elsewhere, largely because of some vocal shortcomings. Try the audio version for yourself if you can from the Naxos Music Library.
There need be no serious reservations about any of the performances on this Opus Arte recording. You can judge for yourself because large chunks of this performance, one of just under an hour - and one of almost two hours - are available on YouTube. Anna Bonitatibus’ performance of Dido’s lament, with French subtitles, is here; neither sound nor picture is much to write home about by comparison with the finished product on DVD and blu-ray but these generous extracts will give you a good idea of the merits not only of her singing but also of the quality of that lament - a serious challenge to Purcell’s When I am laid in earth and even to Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna.
Let me say at the outset that one major recommendation for this production is the lack of gimmicks in the production. All too often recent productions of opera have been spoiled by tomfoolery, such as the shift of the action of the Glyndebourne Rinaldo to a boarding school, thereby diminishing the value of some very good singing. There’s very little of that here, though I’m not sure why Venus has to depart from Troy and arrive in Carthage lugging a modern suitcase, or why Dido from the outset is not wearing the dark mourning clothes which Anna begs her to put aside. Worst of all, though mild by comparison with that Rinaldo, why does the same dead stag grace the stage in Troy and in Carthage? Why a dead stag when the hunters have been exclaiming about catching a boar? It’s handily placed to provide the blood which Dido smears on herself - and, apparently on the conductor during the curtain call.
Anna Bonitatibus as Dido is first-class; her powerful mezzo voice is as resplendent as her wonderful name and Krešimir špicer’s Æneas is hardly far behind - just occasionally I thought that he pushed the tone a little too hard as he was warming up at the start of Act 1. In quieter moments he sounds mellifluous right from the beginning, especially when he bids farewell to Dido. I’d encountered Ms Bonitatibus before as Juno in Ercole Amante and Krešimir špicer as an effective Ulysses in the Virgin Classics DVD of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (4906129). They lead a strong cast here and I hope to hear both again.
There are absolutely no weak spots in the singing; the only time I had even the slightest concern was when Francesco Javier Borda as Jupiter failed to be quite convincing with the cruelly deep notes which Cavalli has given him. Otherwise he manages the very different roles of Jupiter and Sinon extremely well, exulting in the wicked deception which he has wrought in the latter role. Cavalli’s audience would be classically savvy enough to recall that he was the inventor of the Trojan horse.
Of the other dual roles, Ascanius and Cupid are required to double by the plot and Terry Wey, boyish in appearance and tone of voice, carries off both excellently. Only the combination of Creusa and Juno is problematic - no sooner have we got used to seeing Tehila Nini Goldstein as the first than she has to change gear considerably as the exulting goddess. Claire Debono doubles Iris in the Prologue and Venus. Having played the former pretty straight, I thought her just a little too coquettish as Venus. That does at least mirror her reputation in the renaissance, as depicted in Boticelli’s Venus and Mars.
One other small reservation concerns Anchises; he’s frequently referred to as decrepit - in Virgil Æneas has to carry him on his back and in Cavalli’s libretto he calls himself decrepito - yet he looks rather too sprightly here. We wouldn’t want him to sing in a comic old-man’s voice - this is La Didone not La Calisto, where Hugues Cuénod had such a field day - so it’s just a convention that we have to respond to with willing disbelief. Similarly, the abruptness of Creusa’s death, her dying exclamation, subsequent ghostly reappearance, and the expiration of Coroebus must be thought of as theatrical conventions just like similar abrupt deaths and reappearances in Jacobean Revenge Plays and Victorian melodrama. By and large, there’s nothing here that has to be taken as convention that we are not likely to find in a Handel opera. There is some scope for comic relief in the form of Iarbas’s madness, but it’s hardly slapstick; it’s less emotive than Vivaldi and Handel were to make the madness of Orlando, and it’s certainly not overdone here. Nor is the brief scene where Neptune grapples with Jupiter for interfering in his domain over-played.
That death of Corœbus gives Cavalli the opportunity to write a lament for Cassandra of a kind beloved of audiences of the day. It provides a foretaste of Dido’s lament later; it was the popularity of Il Lamento d’Arianna that not only saved it when the rest of Monteverdi’s L’Arianna was lost but also led its composer to rejig it as a lament for the Virgin Mary.
William Christie’s direction can almost be taken to guarantee a fine performance and that’s the case here. We see him standing at the outset before quite a large orchestra, in front of a harpsichord. I don’t know how often he plays it, but there seems to be another keyboard in the continuo - it and the other continuo instruments can (just) be heard where it matters and that’s a pleasant change from some modern recordings where the harpsichord might just as well not be there. 
The recording sounds well enough as played on television but much better via my audio system. I haven’t seen or heard the blu-ray version, which doubtless improves on the sound and picture of the DVD, but you certainly wouldn’t be in any way disappointed with the latter. The camera-work is mostly unobtrusive; in the brighter lighting of Acts 2 and 3, the chitarrone sticking up into the picture is a little distracting, but it probably could not have been avoided. Just occasionally individual voices catch the microphone less than ideally as the actor moves across the stage; this particularly when heard on headphones. Slightly more often the stage noises are a little distracting, especially when heard in audio only. 
The notes are far too minimal - a two-page essay in three languages on the Cavalli revival, but no libretto or even synopsis, just a brief plot outline, which is a serious problem. The subtitles, though good, are no substitute. There’s an online Italian libretto and another with English translation. There are subtitles in English, French and German only; could we not also have had them in the original Italian? The English translation is mainly accurate, though there’s the odd inevitably typo and an occasional questionable translation - why call Giove and Mercurio, the Latin deities, by their Greek names, Zeus and Hermes in the subtitles? When Dido describes herself in the final scene as Iarbas’ ancella e sposa, the first word signifies handmaid or slave, not friend as it’s translated.
As I was tidying up this review I noticed that one music magazine has made this the thoroughly deserved DVD/Blu-ray Recording of the Month, a title which I was also tempted to bestow. If you wish to have only one Cavalli recording in your collection, this would vie strongly for that honour, ahead of Ercole Amante and alongside the inauthentic but hugely enjoyable Raymond Leppard recording of La Calisto (no longer available on CD). You may even find yourself preferring La Didone to Monteverdi.
-- Brian Wilson , MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: September 25, 2012

  • Catalog Number: OA 1080D

  • UPC: 809478010807

  • Label: Opus Arte

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Pier Francesco Cavalli

  • Conductor: William Christie

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Les Arts Florissants

  • Performer: Anna Bonitatibus, Katherine Watson, Kresimir Spicer, Maria Streijfert, Xavier Sabata