Purcell’s ‘noble torso,’ as reimagined by Boston Early Music Festival

Douglas Williams in Boston Early Music Festival’s “Dido and Aeneas.’’ Douglas Williams in Boston Early Music Festival’s “Dido and Aeneas.’’ (André Costantini)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / November 30, 2010

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The Boston Early Music Festival introduced its fall chamber opera series just two years ago but it has already become one of the organization’s marquee offerings. Previously BEMF had only its biennial festival as an outlet for its visually distinctive and musically vibrant approach to Baroque opera. Now it enjoys an expanded presence and a local following that appears to be growing. For this weekend’s third installment of the series, devoted to Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,’’ a second Jordan Hall performance was added and both were sold out or nearly so.

It may have helped that “Dido’’ is one of the best known and most loved works of its era. For all of the opera’s popularity, however, we know less about its historical origins than you might expect. Even some of its music — its entire Prologue, and several dance interludes — have been lost, leading BEMF’s Stephen Stubbs to describe the piece as “a noble torso, like the Venus de Milo, in need of some additions to create an impression of completeness.’’

The additions supplied in this case included a Purcell court ode titled “Welcome, Viceregent of the mighty King,’’ originally written for Charles II, which worked nicely with director Gilbert Blin’s conceit of framing his staging as a performance in a royal court or stately private home. As an epilogue this production also interpolates a second Purcell ode, “Why, why are all the Muses mute?’’ And selections from the composer’s “Amphitryon,’’ among other works, are used to fill out the missing music for dance.

It amounts to a nimble feat of Purcellian quilt-work, with the added selections themselves a pleasure to hear but also providing a thoughtful means of bringing the opera’s musical dimensions closer in line with its dramatic weight. It surely helped that executing this vision on Sunday afternoon was a slim yet superb BEMF chamber ensemble, led by Stubbs and Paul O’Dette and including violinist Robert Mealy. Played with spare eloquence by what amounted to a tightly functioning septet, Purcell’s music sounded fresh, rhythmically taut, and invigorating.

Sunday’s vocal performances, unfortunately, were less uniformly strong. At the work’s center was a competent but rather undistinguished Dido sung by Laura Pudwell, an Ontario-based mezzo-soprano. Pudwell performed admirably with the smaller assignment of Arnalta in BEMF’s staging of Monteverdi’s “Poppea’’ last year but she was a curious choice as a BEMF Dido. At least on Sunday, she seemed under-equipped for this major role, lacking the refinement and subtlety of technique required to conjure the true depth and breadth of expression that Purcell pours into his vocal writing. One felt the limitations of her mezzo most keenly in Dido’s celebrated lament, which came across here with a certain two-dimensional quality as well as some unflattering high notes.

Douglas Williams held his own as Aeneas, singing with a warm and well-deployed bass-baritone. Yulia Van Doren was a vocally nimble Belinda. Jason McStoots aimed for comic relief — and delivered it — with his performance as the Sorceress. Teresa Wakim, José Lemos, Zachary Wilder, and the remainder of the cast sang well. Blin’s meticulous staging and Anna Watkins’s lavish costumes had their customary high-period sheen yet also a higher silliness quotient than some of their other recent work with the company. Dance interludes featured Melinda Sullivan’s choreography, and some particularly vibrant instrumental playing from the BEMF chamber ensemble.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

PURCELL’S “DIDO AND AENEAS’’ Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette, musical directors

Boston Early Music Festival

At: Jordan Hall, Sunday afternoon