Selections of Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth” (“Dido’s Lament”) from Dido and Aeneas featuring Janet Baker, soprano and London Philharmonic Orchestra; Jessye Norman, soprano and Orchestra of St. Luke’s; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Ondrejcak, director; Annie Lennox and London City Voices

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Now, More Than Ever: Issue 53

For several months now, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of dedicating an issue of Now, More Than Ever to various interpretations of a single work of music, so when I heard that our great friends at the Mark Morris Dance Group were planning to present a special Dido and Aeneas Week (February 8–14; see the box below for more details), I knew the perfect opportunity was at hand. First created in 1989, when Morris was director of dance at Brussels’ La Monnaie, this adaptation of Henry Purcell’s eponymous opera of 1689 has long been acknowledged one of the choreographer’s signature works, “a tour de force of late 20th-century artistic storytelling… that smashes and rewrites stylistic boundaries” (Los Angeles Times) and “a dazzling interpretation of Purcell’s superlative work” (The New York Times).

Easily the most treasured moment of Purcell’s grand creation is the famous “Dido’s Lament” (“When I am laid in earth”), which occurs at the end of this sad and simple story: Dido, the Queen of Carthage, falls in love with the Trojan prince Aeneas but becomes an unfortunate pawn of the gods in their struggle for his destiny. Aeneas is convinced he must leave her and Dido resigns herself to die upon his departure.

But what makes this music so powerful? After all, the bass line never changes, while the melody is presented over that bass line as a set of simple variations. I asked Morris about the “Lament,” and he responded with the following comment:

Famously, the aria “When I am laid in earth” is set to a descending bass line that seeps chromatically into the grave. The melting and falling ground bass was common in Baroque music as a symbol of weeping, sighing dolor. In Dido’s lament, the course of the four chords keeps the asymmetrical tune in constant argument with the harmony.
It is unsettling, relentless, accepted, and doomed.

And yet, the aria’s hold over us remains as strong as ever, even after more than 325 years.

• • •

In today’s NMTE, we’ll look at five different performances of the “Lament”: two more traditional in presentation and featuring classical vocalists who were among the greatest artists of their generations; a plush mid-20th-century orchestral arrangement/transcription composed and conducted by the renowned Leopold Stokowski; and two decidedly modern renditions, each packing a powerful contemporary punch.

I think you’ll find the similarities and differences between these performances both instructive and compelling. Taken together, they demonstrate the music’s universal appeal, something that would have made the prospect of adapting Purcell’s opera all the more attractive to Morris when he conceived his adaptation more 30 years ago.

A side note: several years ago, I attended meetings hosted by New York University on “The Future of Classical Music.” I remember chatting with Ellen T. Harris, professor emeritus at MIT and a former member of the music faculties of Columbia University and the University of Chicago, and the New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe. We were discussing Ellen’s just-completed and wholly revised second edition of her brilliant Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” (Oxford University Press). Ellen told us that, 30 years after her book’s original publication and given the most recent studies, “we now know even less about Dido than we thought.” Zachary, recognizing a good story when he heard one, commissioned Ellen on the spot to write an article on the subject for the Times. You can read it here. (Ellen even includes some sincere praise for Mark Morris’ adaptation of Purcell’s great work.)

Mark Morris Dance Group – Dido and Aeneas Week

Explore Mark Morris’ Dido and Aeneas, a danced opera set to Henry Purcell’s score, through a series of talks and classes accompanying the week-long screening of the 1995 filmed version of the work. The film will be available to stream on demand for the entire week. The first screening day will also include a live Q&A with Morris and Barbara Willis Sweete, the director of the film. Other activities during the week include talks with dancers, musicologist Ellen Harris, and set designer Robert Bordo; Dance with MMDG classes for all levels, teaching excerpts from the work; Dance for PD classes appropriate for anyone with mobility concerns; and more. Dido and Aeneas Week is free.

Purcell: “When I am laid in earth” (“Dido’s Lament”)
from Dido and Aeneas

selections featuring…

Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir John Pritchard or Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor*

In this, one of the greatest filmed musical performances ever—a master class in vocal coloration—the great Janet Baker (see also NMTE Issue 27 and Issue 36) displays such a transformation of character—from the beginning of the recitative through the end of the aria—that you can only sit back and marvel. Her voice sounds at first tremulous and fragile (a quality I often associate with her recordings). But then, as she moves through the recitative, descending to “Death is now a welcome guest,” Baker modulates effortlessly into her chest voice; suddenly—almost miraculously—there seem to be several people singing, not simply one. It’s a stunning display of impeccable vocal technique married to the text.

Note that Baker’s repetitions of “Remember me” are never sung the same way twice and each carries its own separate meaning. You feel the unbearable weight of lost love and understand—deep in your soul—how someone could actually die of a broken heart.

* Sources disagree on the conductor here, some listing Sir John Pritchard, others Sir Charles Mackerras. If you have some inside information, please let me know!

Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,
On thy bosom let me rest,
More I would, but Death invades me;
Death is now a welcome guest.

When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

Jessye Norman, soprano
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Jane Glover, conductor

This performance of the “Lament” by the great Jessye Norman is equally convincing, but in a totally different way. One of the remarkable things about watching Norman close up (as here) is that you can see the technique at work, the deliberate ways she physically forms sound and words with her mouth and breath. But I also wish that some of the camera shots here were not quite so close, so that we could see the ways Norman inflates those bellows-like lungs of hers, the huge amount of breath she is able to hold and control. Much has been said about Norman as an artist—the formidable evenness of sound that has its own awesome and compelling quality—but what’s not often mentioned is how we can actually observe her voice in action by watching her body.

Janet Baker had a supremely beautiful voice but one with not even half the power of Norman’s. But each was a legend in her own time. In these performances of “Dido’s Lament,” Baker has the benefit of appearing in a staged performance, of acting the role in costume, surrounded by a talented cast; here she is captured in the process of portraying the full arc of the character on stage. She’s also British, as was Purcell, and underlying her performance is an implied nationalism and connection to the composer that I expect originated during her youth. Regarding our second example, Norman’s concert program on this occasion was about feminism. And her performance is informed by deep poise and an overwhelming sense of dignity. Truly, she displays the regal stature of a born queen.

(Note: several other Jessye Norman performances have been discussed in NMTE, including in Issue 7 [a different—and hyper-stylized—version of “Dido’s Lament”], Issue 16, and Issue 29.)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski, conductor

Here’s a fascinating archival performance from a very specific moment in time. Transcriptions often reveal as much about the time in which they were created—reflecting the musical values of the day—as about the setting of the original composition. Stokowski was a wonderful conductor—we’ll always remember Fantasia—but he was a force in contemporary music as well. One of his passions was transcribing music—especially Baroque music—in ways that exploited the full colors of the symphony orchestra. Although Stokowski here is leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra, most of these pieces were written with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s strings in mind. Stokowski was the original architect of that orchestra’s rich, lush sound during his time as music director (1912–38), ultimately passing it on to Eugene Ormandy. In this transcription—actually, more of a fantasia—you can hear the same results.

Andrew Ondrejcak, director

It’s a safe bet that Purcell could never have imagined this use of “Dido’s Lament” (sung here by an uncredited soprano), but that doesn’t rob director Andrew Ondrejcak’s short film of its power. Here he places the words of the “Lament” in the mouths of marginalized communities. The result is a powerful claim to—and call for—acknowledgement and recognition.

Annie Lennox
London City Voices

With Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón (then the toast of the opera world) leading the cast, the 2008 premiere of Nicholas Hytner’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlo at Covent Garden was a pretty starry affair. But my chief memory from opening night is of sitting directly behind Annie Lennox and being unable to stop staring at the back of her head. You simply couldn’t take your eyes off her, so involved was she in the music.

We think of Lennox and her hits—the years with the Eurythmics, the solo career—but she’s also very attached to her classical roots. I’m touched that she heard in Purcell’s aria a lament for the planet. Together with her “everyman” choir, all involved here clearly love conveying this message.

(For something entirely different, but no less impressive, check out Lennox’s take on the famous opening music from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Count me a fan!)

• • •

For an insightful examination of how “Dido’s Lament” continues to cast its spell, please check out Classic FM’s helpful interview and demonstration with legendary harpsichordist and conductor Trevor Pinnock.

Our thanks to Mark Morris, who also contributed to this list of performances with two suggestions of his own, renditions by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (when she was known as Lorraine Hunt) and Klaus Nomi.

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