Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens its 2013-2014 season with Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas"

Celebrating 25 years of fine performance, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 2013-2014 concert season with a performance of Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) opera “Dido and Aeneas”. Conducting the three concerts was the JBO’s founder and artistic director David Shemer. This writer attended the performance in the Mary Nathaniel Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA, on November 2nd 2013. This performance was the concluding event of the Choral Fantasy Festival.

Preceding the opera itself, the orchestra presented the premiere of a suite reconstructed by Alon Schab from an incomplete score by Henry Purcell. Taken from the Filmer manuscript in Yale University Music Library, Dr. Alon Schab suggests this Suite in g minor may have been the real overture to “Dido and Aeneas”. This would tie in with the fact that the end of the opera – Dido’s Lament – is also written in the key of g minor. Of the six movements of the suite, only the first survived in its complete scoring of five-part orchestration. Of the five remaining movements, only the bass line has survived. Dr. Schab has reconstructed those movements in the style of French-influenced court dances and in a four-part texture, modeled on Purcell’s theatre music, the result being a totally coherent, stylistically informed and elegant dance suite. Orchestra and audience thrilled to the enjoyment of the music and the inspiring experience hearing the suite for the first time in some 330 years. Musicologist, composer and recorder player Dr. Alon Schab graduated from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in composition and recorder performance. As an Ussher Fellow of Trinity College (Dublin), he wrote his doctoral dissertation on compositional techniques in Purcell’s early instrumental works. Today, Alon Schab is working on a monograph of Purcell’s Trio Sonatas; he lectures at Haifa University, also teaching at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

With no intermission to distract the concert-goers from the matter at hand, Maestro Shemer took his players and singers straight into the opera itself. With musicologists no longer sure that it was first performed at the girls’ boarding school run by dancing master and choreographer Josias Priest (although this might throw light on the reason for the small part given to Aeneas) “Dido and Aeneas” is thought to have been composed in 1689. The libretto, written in verse by Dublin-born Nahum Tate, is based on Book IV of Virgil’s “Aeneid”; streamlining the existing story to make for an hour’s fine, sung entertainment, Tate changed the emphasis of the drama from being conventionally heroic to more human. There are other changes in the plot: Tate created the idea of the three malicious witches. In Virgil’s version, Dido stabs herself, whereas in the Purcell opera, her death is noble and non-violent; in fact, the dignity of her death is suggested by Purcell’s music rather than by Tate’s libretto.

Six singers took part in the JBO performance, all of them young, rising stars on the Israeli concert scene. Russian-born mezzo-soprano Zlata Hershberg’s large, well-anchored voice (her English colored by a slight Russian accent), her humor and fine theatrical bent made the ideal combination for her role of the sorceress. Providing comic relief, she and young soprano Adaya Peled (who played both second witch and second woman) were convincing and entertaining in their saucy and hexing schemes. Add to these the whimsical effect achieved with some of the instrumentalists poker-facedly singing the echo responses to the chorus “In our deep vaulted cell the charms we’ll prepare”. As the first sailor, Doron Florentin’s sense of fun and waggish personality took “a boozy short leave” for what it really was, reeling in drunken stupor, eventually to be carried off stage by Guy Pelc. As the spirit, however, Florentin’s natural, large vocal sound spelled out the fateful message to Aeneas of “Jove’s command” to “forsake this land” that same evening. As Aeneas, baritone Guy Pelc conveyed acceptance, tragic helplessness, dejection and the urgency of his plight with articulacy, his coloring of each verbal gesture adding to the weightiness of the role.

Soprano Einat Aronstein was a feminine, sympathetic and sometimes coquettish Belinda. Her vocal ease, musicality and confidence are matched with a capacity to be expressive; her emotional support of Dido was well displayed. A student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Shaked Bar made a supreme effort as Dido, her eyes focused somewhere away from the action on stage, evoking a queen emotionally removed from her surroundings, a subdued loner, predicting disaster. Her expressive manner – vocal and facial – was served well by her creamy, stable voice, fine control and total immersion in the plot. With the strong tie between her and her servant Belinda clear from the outset, she opens with a touching rendering of “Ah, Belinda, I am prest with torment not to be confest”, its intimate expression poignantly supported by theorbo and ‘cello alone. Dido’s final aria – her lament – is no light task, technically or musically, also due to the fact that audience members have heard it sung so many times by some of the world’s greatest sopranos and are waiting to compare Shaked Bar’s reading of it with those of others! Bar, however, collected and focused, gave it a convincing, sensitive and emotional performance, yet keeping a safe distance from sentimentalism and bad taste. This was surely a feather in the cap of this young and promising artist.

The same six singers sang the choruses. These pieces were vibrant, richly bristling in individual vocal timbres and dynamics, with attention to the rhythm of words, the singing of the final chorus treated sensitively, with delicate shaping, alluding in gentle sadness to Dido’s death.

The JBO players presented instrumental performance that was well balanced with the voices, subtle, suggestive and palpably relevant throughout. We heard them in some lively, gently flexed dances, elegant overtures and also in effects, such as stormy winds that set the scene for the witches’ (Shakespeare-influenced) meeting. Maestro David Shemer’s production of “Dido and Aeneas”, assisted by Motti Awerbuch’s visual advice, was fresh, dynamic and moving.

No comments: