Nicholas McGegan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and guests
Photo: mine 2009
Purcell is one of those composers who can be at turns exhilarating or deadly boring to listen to, sometimes from moment to moment. What’s survived of his work does include a few brilliant operas including Dido and Aeneas,
which the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
under the direction of Nicholas McGegan presented in a program alongside some of Purcell’s less compelling material Wednesday night. After a series of glowingly-reviewed performances in the bay area last week with the same program, I was greatly anticipating their arrival in Los Angeles, and the performance of Dido and Aeneas
lived up to its billing.
Even beyond PBO’s crisp and dexterous period-instrument technique, McGegan scored a coup with some incredible casting. Last weekend, Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic could barely assemble a cast for Verdi’s massive Requiem
while McGegan was able to bring along Susan Graham, Cyndia Seiden, Jill Grove, and Celine Ricci. In fact it was Graham's first appearance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and, even though it may have been a rather low-key debut, her presence couldn't have been more auspicious. Standing what seemed a foot taller than everyone, Graham in a gorgeous sequined gown projected an assured and regal aura that I'll likely still be feeling next week. And then there was her singing. Dido's lament, a showstopper to be sure, was exactly that - rich and devastatingly beautiful. But this was a cast with no weak links and the Philharmonia chorus provided equally excellent support.
McGegan took a broad and lusty approach to the libretto playing up the witches for maximum comic potential right down to the chorus members. It was admittedly a little over the top, but considering the period and source of the material, it worked well, keeping the piece from getting too boring or aloof. This unfortunately was not always the case in the first half of the show where a handful of shorter choral works and suites suffered from a decidedly more pedestrian approach. It was a small price to pay considering the real treat that followed.