Big Purcell birthday bash

Although he was only 34 years old when he died, Henry Purcell lived long enough to secure his reputation as one of England’s greatest composers.

On Thursday, the finest period instrument orchestra in the United States, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, presents its sole San Francisco installment of “The Passion of Dido.” The extraordinary program of instrumental and vocal music celebrates the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth.

Central to the celebration is a concert performance of Purcell’s compact, 50-minute opera, “Dido and Aeneas.” Credited as the first English opera, its music combines stateliness and grandeur with potent expressions of love, passion, betrayal and death.

Dido’s final aria, “Thy Hand, Belinda … When I shall laid in Earth,” is justly prized for its heartbreaking air of longing and resignation. Deeply communicative, the music transcends the span of centuries to speak with uncommon directness and truth.

PBO’s vocal lineup is the envy of any stage.

It’s headlined by the great Texas-born mezzo-soprano and San Francisco favorite, Susan Graham, and a sister star of the San Francisco and Metropolitan Operas, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove.

The five-star cast also features California-born coloratura soprano Cyndia Sieden, a certified mistress of high-flying modern and baroque repertoire; French-Italian soprano Céline Ricci, whose singing is winning a slew of awards; and sweet-toned San Francisco Opera Merola Opera tenor, Brian Thorsett.

Conducted by the buoyant Nicholas McGegan, whose music making benefits from his proper English pedigree (or so we hope), uncommon vibrancy and vitality of pulse, the performance should be revelatory. If anyone believes that “Dido and Aeneas” is an antiquated museum piece, McGegan and his cast will set the record straight.

“What I love so much in particular about Purcell’s setting,” Graham explained in a recent phone interview, “is the intimacy of Dido’s expression. [Her final] aria is her noble resignation to the fact that she has to die because Aeneas has left her and it’s her fate. Noble is a word that keeps coming back to me because of the way that she expresses her acceptance [by repeating] ‘Remember me. Remember me.’”

We who attend will remember as well as did Purcell’s contemporaries. Preceding the three-act opera are two different religious choral anthems, the Suite from Purcell’s music to the tragic play “Abdelazar,” and the “Chacony” in G minor. While excerpts from some of this music can be heard on Philharmonia Baroque’s Web site, www.philharmoniabaroque.org, nothing can replace hearing it live, infused with all the color that a resonant acoustic affords.

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