Dido and Aeneas, Winchfield Festival

martaf-sIT may be hard to think of a man who died more than 320 years ago as “one of the most forward-thinking English composers” ­–  but Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was a daring innovator and the man who introduced Italian-style opera to Restoration England.

Conductor David Gibson delighted the audience at the biennial Winchfield Festival’s opera evening. The all-Purcell programme began with four songs, featuring soprano Robyn Allegra Parton, and the Chaconne in G minor, played by Ars Eloquentiae.

The main event was Dido and Aeneas, the opera which is best known for the achingly poignant Dido’s Lament, but which contains a wealth of dramatic and exquisite music testing the skills of the singers.

In the main role as Dido, the Queen of Carthage, was the young mezzo soprano Marta Fontanals Simmons, from Castle Cary. Marta has a rich and beautiful voice, perfectly suited to this music, and sang her tragic role with an intense sensitivity.

Robyn Allegra Parton’s light, pretty soprano was ideal for Dido’s companion Belinda, and there were excellent and well-characterised performances from Judy Weaver as the Sorceress and Kathryn Tarrant and Fiona Taylor as the ghastly cackling witches. All three are members of the impressive Occam Singers, who formed the chorus for this concert performance.

The ability of the English to enjoy music in fields in wet weather is famous – the 2016 Glastonbury Festival will probably go into the record books for rain and mud – and the Winchfield audience had plenty of sodden grass and mud to negotiate before reaching the dry marquee. But the wet feet (and similarly squelchy return to the carpark) were more than compensated by the fine performance of this well-balanced Purcell programme.


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