This isn’t a review. This is me writing the strange things that I think about when I listen to music. Many thanks to Sydney Chamber Choir for making it possible for me to think them.
Sydney Chamber Choir
Sydney University Great Hall
7 October 2017
The best performances change something in you.
I never thought of Dido and Aeneas as a great feminist tract. Call me naive, call me dim-witted, but when I studied Purcell’s little great work (‘O’ level music, aged 15, don’t ask what year) I found it curiously bland. The music had none of the rhythmic complexity or thematic development of the Beethoven’s String Quartet we were also studying. It didn’t have the word-painting or the massive four-part harmonies of our other set work, Haydn’s The Creation. And as a drama it felt lacking: who was this characters who walked on, sang, fell in love, then killed herself for a man she’d met only 20 minutes earlier. Even though she died so very very beautifully…
My feelings about Dido and Aeneas have for many years fought against those boring afternoons sitting in the music room with a photocopied score and a lumpen vinyl recording. I’ve played it, sung it, and seen it performed, live, and still I hear my music teacher announcing the ground basses in a listless voiceover. But listening again to the plangent strings, the warmth of the choruses and the compulsive, restless ground basses last Saturday I heard something new. Something changed.
Was it Belinda Montgomery’s noble portrayal of the doomed queen Dido? Or the stately ardour of David Greco’s Aeneas? Both sang their opening scenes with a stark beauty. It was as if they were following a story already set in stone, like those bloody ground bass figures going on and on, to an inevitable end. Except that those bloody ground basses doesn’t go straight down the tracks, because they’re all of uneven length, so every repeat creates a new, slightly different iteration. Previously harmonious chords stick to new, crunchy ones, and rhythms stumble and trip. You can see where I’m going with this. The thing I heard in this performance of Dido and Aeneas, which I’ve never heard before, was a strange tension between how things should be, and how we imagine they should be, and how they really are. Suddenly, the naive optimism of Belinda (a powerhouse performance from Megan Cronin), and the chorus’s eager desire for a happy ending, struck me as unbearably poignant. Dido’s hesitation felt like someone hesitating to step onto the gallows. Aeneas sounded like a hollow jock coming to claim his entitlement. Having supernatural intervention in affairs of the heart is a colourful convenience for Aeneas, but I couldn’t help thinking if the witches — the terrific trio of Wei Jiang, Ria Andriani and Josie Gibson, plus that naughty Natalie Shea as the sprite — hadn’t sent Aeneas packing, he’d have found another excuse. Then, like the sailor — a classy comic turn from Ed Suttle — he’d take a boozy short leave of his nymph on the shore, and silence her mournings with vows of returning, but never intending to visit no more.
Whether or not all my rambling psychobabble was intended by Sydney Chamber Choir, the precision and momentum definitely triggered it. That and the spacious direction from Peelman, allowing soloists and the Muffat Ensemble to explore Purcell’s winding melodies, to find strange meetings and breathy pauses which made the 400 year old score radiant. The choir were responsive and nimble, never letting the satisfying weight of their voices slow the proceedings (except when waiting for an echo… echo… echo). The Muffat Ensemble, led by Matthew Greco, were impressive, adding their own voice to a nuanced argument, rather than just being an accompaniment. And as for the lament, Montgomery managed to find that perfect point between clarity and emotion, myth and reality. She was a queen, she was fortune’s tennis ball, but she was also a woman.
Now I must go and listen to it all over again. I hope Sydney Chamber Choir recorded it.