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Avie Records reissues a major recording of a pioneering opera

The portrait of Henry Purcell that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London
by John Closterman, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Almost exactly a year ago, Avie Records released a new recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo: Favola in Musica, the myth of Orpheus rendered entirely in music, whose Wikipedia page described the composition as “the first fully developed example” of the genre that would come to be known as “opera.” The recording project was the effort of conductor Andrew Parrott leading the vocalists of his Taverner Consort and the instrumentalists of his Taverner Players, all of whom assembled at the Church of St. Michael & All Angels in Summertown, Oxford for recording sessions in July of 2012.

Maintaining their commitment to the performance of early music of historical significance and to Parrott’s distinctive talents, Avie has now reissued a much earlier recording project. This was actually Parrott’s second recording of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, recorded at. St. Giles Cripplegate in London in September of 1994 but not released by Sony in the United States until April 20, 1999. Avie acquired the rights to this recording and reissued it on their own label this past May 13.

It does not take much browsing on Amazon to discover that there are many choices available for recordings of this opera. (There is a Wikipedia page with a discography that dates back to 1935.) What is important about Parrott, however, is that, as an interpreter, he gives as much attention to sonority as to the “letter of the text” on the score pages.

That attention did much to endow the L’Orfeo recording with more than ample dramatic significance. The listener now realizes that Parrott was building on the previous use of this approach when he recorded Dido and Aeneas, and it is most evident in his attention to reconciling musical fidelity with the actor’s attention to “tone of voice.” While this is most easily recognized in the earthy accent of the sailor at the beginning of the third act, one quickly appreciates how soprano Emily Van Evera has teased out Dido’s fundamentally depressive personality, thus making her death scene at the end of the opera all the more poignant. This is definitely not Hector Berlioz’ Dido; nor is it the Dido of an opera diva more used to singing Violetta in La Traviata (and we should all be thankful for that)!

Parrott also provided an interesting “appendix” to this recording. At the end of the opera, after Dido has died, the chorus summons Cupids (plural) to “scatter roses on her tomb.” The final number in the score is the dance of those Cupids “with drooping wings.” Parrott follows this with a performance of a G minor pavane that Purcell composed for three violins (Andrew Manze, Caroline Balding, and Richard Gwilt) and continuo (Parrott on organ with Mark Levy on bass viol). This may be taken as a “virtual procession” of Dido’s body being brought to the tomb that the Cupids have prepared. This makes for a nice dramatic touch while satisfying those who can never get enough Purcell at the same time. (For those curious about detail, that track was also included on the original Sony release.)

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