In the program notes for this recording of Dido and Aeneas, conductor Leonardo García Alarcón makes a persuasive scholarly and analytical case for his many unconventional performance choices, but listeners should be forewarned that this is not a version of the opera for the faint of heart or for committed traditionalists. Most noticeably, this performance, which features the Geneva-based ensembles La Nouvelle Ménestrandie and Cappella Mediterranea, makes Dido and Aeneas seem like a very big opera, something on the order of Il Trovatore in its wrenching intensity, if not in its length. Alarcón's augmentation of the orchestra with oboes and bassoons doubling the strings in some places, as he argues Purcell would have done, is partly accountable for its enlarged sense of scale. Equally significant is the ferocity with which both the singers and players tear into their parts and the extremity of some of the characterizations. Dido and the Sorceress, for instance, express their anguish and hatred, respectively, by bending pitches to a degree rarely heard in "classical" music settings, and the Witches sing in creaky, crone-like character voices. It should be remembered that "baroque" was originally a term of derision meaning something misshapen or distorted, the equivalent of wagging the finger and saying, "you've gone too far this time!" That may be exactly the reaction of some listeners, but whether you're appalled or beguiled, this is a Dido and Aeneas that's likely to keep you on the edge of your seat with suspense.
Few performances of the opera have so clearly delineated its arch-shaped trajectory; it opens with Dido lamenting the possibility of Aeneas' inconstancy and ends with her lamenting its actuality, and in this recording just about everything that transpires between the laments happens at a fever pitch of musical and dramatic tension. The fact that Alarcón is able to create and sustain the performance's intensity is a testimony not only to his vision and skill but to the willingness of the musicians to throw themselves so wholeheartedly into the venture. Every role, even the smallest, demonstrates the singers' investment in their parts. They all sing beautifully and powerfully, and manage to convey a verismo-like theatricality while operating (more or less) within the bounds of accepted Baroque performance practice. Aeneas can easily come across as a cipher, but Alejandro Meerapfel gives him substance, someone about whom the Queen of Carthage could believably get worked up. Countertenor Fabián Schofrin is a weird, sinister Sorceress. As Belinda, Yeree Suh sings with exceptional warmth, clarity, and sweetness. Solenn' Lavanant Linke's soprano is sumptuous and creamy, and she makes a regal but womanly Dido. The orchestra plays with aching expressivity and the continuo realizations are marvelously inventive. The recording is vividly present and is miked at a high level for a classical album, which also contributes to its unusually large sense of scale. Highly recommended.