June 2006

Dido and Aeneas

Dido                         Fiona Sharp
Belinda                    Joanna Benson
Second woman     Jessica Streeting
Aeneas                    Tom Kennedy
Sorceress                Teehan Page
First witch              Carolyn Pascall
Second witch         William Leigh Knight
Sailor                       Kevin Walsh
Spirit                        Jeremy Kemball
Chorus                    The Company
Director                   John Arthur

a semi-staged concert performance of Purcell’s opera

Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695), believed to be an OW, became organist of Westminster Abbey in 1679. His exceptional genius makes him one of the greatest composers of the baroque period and one of the greatest of all English composers.  He was an extremely prolific composer who served at court in the reigns of three successive kings, Charles II, James II and William III.

Dido and Aeneas is unquestionably a masterpiece and one of the greatest of all musical tragedies. Aeneas is a guest at court in Carthage and Dido, a widow, finds herself reluctant to express her love for him. Belinda and her chorus think that ‘Grief should ne’er approach the fair’ and persuade Dido to submit to the power of love.  This idealistic view is not shared by the Witches, who for no reason other than that which causes their like throughout the ages to be envious of the fortunate, decide to plot Dido’s ruin – ‘The Queen of Carthage, whom we hate, As we do all in prosp’rous state …’. They thus become the contemporary agents of Fate or the gods, who are keen to keep the queen concentrating on affairs of State and Aeneas focused on his mission to re-establish Troy – neither of which allows for Cupid’s distractions.

Nahum Tate’s libretto does not give Aeneas any time for reflection before he renounces his new love and sets sail; indeed the whole opera moves at breathtaking speed, throwing the audience from sympathy to horror and back with perhaps a touch of humour as well.  What starts out as a story about love and duty in conflict becomes one in which ‘Great minds against themselves conspire’ when laid low by the intervention of the malevolent.

Purcell’s setting is remarkable in its concentration of musical metaphor and energetic pulse: the famous final aria on a ground bass for Dido takes up just two pages of the printed score, yet portrays as fully as any Verdi aria the desolation of a woman so broken-hearted that she leaves both love and empire to die, leaving her women to summon cherubs to keep watch on her tomb.

The Chorus comments and takes part in the action, rather in the manner of a Greek chorus.  The Chorus music and orchestral interludes and dances provide a musical context for the action so complete that elaborate staging is unnecessary.

The libretto was inspired by Tate’s own play Brutus of Alba and Virgil’s Aeneid, and the opera was written in response to John Blow’s Venus and Adonis – there is an allusion to this in the scene where Aeneas displays a boar’s head trophy (Adonis was killed by a boar).  Dido and Aeneas was thought to have been written for the girls of Josiah Priest’s school in Chelsea in 1689 but it is now thought more probable that, like Venus and Adonis, it was first performed at court and then adapted for Chelsea later.  Evidence for this comes from the obvious need for male singers, a number of elaborate stage directions (eg Phoebus rising in his chariot) that are unlikely to have been possible at Chelsea, and on stylistic grounds. The libretto has been criticised for extreme compression of the story, under-development of character and poor poetry (‘our plot has took/the queen’s forsook’) but this is unfair. Nearly all the text is in elegant rhyming couplets and the pace and concision of the drama are manifest.  But in the end it is the musical genius of Purcell that carries the whole of this intense piece.