We went this evening to a double bill at the Frankfurt Opera: Dido and Aeneas followed by Count Bluebeard's Castle. The production and music in the Purcell was transcendent (particularly Paul Murrihy's Dido), the Bartók was well-sung and well-played but shockingly dull on stage. It was also a nice reminder of (a) how flexible an opera house like Frankfurt's, a substantial institution, can actually be, here using two entirely different but stylistically appropriate orchestras and stage arrangements in one evening, the baroque half with a scaled down orchestra and historically-informed instruments, pitch-level and playing style (albeit with a few creative alterations: the Sorceress and witches were sung by countertenors, making menancing barbate but full-skirted villains) an expanded continuo group, and added recorder, baroque oboe and bassoon, with some discrete percussion to brighten the orchestral texture, apparently all string in the original) played before the proscenium and breaking into the auditorium with the pit somewhat raised, and (b) how curious it is that particular pieces come to be repertoire items, in this case quality of composition overcoming some substantial disadvantages, like language (English and Hungarian (wonderful to hear some Hungarian again, being deprived of it since my Budapest years)) and being short of a full-evening in length.
Dido, especially with a lively continuo, just flows, and Purcell's text setting is continuously startling, uncanny. It has two ground bass laments to die for (literally) and the balance between the chromatic and diatonic is absolutely right. It has taken time, but it has become a core piece of the repertoire, and possibly the single English language item that ought to be until, well (and here I jump on a limb), the original version of Weber's Oberon. It will ever, however, be on the look out for an appropriate and complementary partner to fill out the evening, because the Bartók just doesn't fit as either a complement or an extension. In recent years, Bluebeard has taken — correctly I think — its own place in the repertoire. It is compact, dramatic, tonal enough for anyone who's ever been in a cinema, and has a pair of vocal lines that sit very well and are supported rather than overridden by the orchestration. The clear, tight structure of the piece is right there with Wozzeck or Turn of the Screw and this is a good illustration of how strong musical structural elements can help a work attract and function securely in productions of radically different character. If there is a weakness in the piece it is that the tonal language — thank the movies — has become familiar, less exotic, and that the rhythmic invention and pacing are somewhat disappointing. (But Purcell, with all of the nuances of ornamentation and pacing that period style makes available to musicians, clearly has some advantage here, so perhaps the partnering was unfair.)