Friday, January 4, 2008

Opera guide 1: Dido & Aeneas

This is the first installment in what is going to be an open-ended series on my favorite operas.

Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas (1689) is an oddity among 17th-century operas. Most Baroque operas are 3 hours long or more, and have a happy ending, however contrived; Dido takes less than an hour to sweep from the introduction of the characters to its tragic conclusion. The primary language of Baroque opera is Italian (although there's also a parallel French tradition); Dido is in English. As a result of its unusual qualities, Dido is an ideal starting point for anyone (or at least, any English speaker) interested in exploring opera, and particularly Baroque opera. Another reason it's ideal is that the music is very tuneful and, especially at key moments, ravishingly beautiful.

The outline of the story is taken from Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid. In Virgil's great poem, Aeneas, fleeing with a few followers the destruction of Troy by the Greeks, finds a safe haven in Carthage, ruled by Queen Dido. Against her better judgment Dido finds herself falling in love with the valiant warrior, a love that is fatefully consummated when, during a hunting party, the couple take shelter from a sudden storm in a secluded cave. Soon, however, Mercury--the messenger of Jupiter--appears to Aeneas and commands him to sail to Italy to found, in Rome, a new Troy. The abandoned Dido, angry, heartbroken and desperate, commits suicide out of "the grief / Of lovers bound unequally by love" (in Robert Fitzgerald's translation[1]); Aeneas, from the deck of his ship heading seaward, sees the smoke rising from her funeral pyre.

Purcell's librettist, the poet Nahum Tate, was famously called "a cold writer, of no invention" by Alexander Pope in The Dunciad. But Tate's changes to Virgil's story actually make it more dramatically complex and stageworthy. He introduces the character of a sorceress, who is Dido's sworn enemy and who plots to destroy her; the scenes in the witches' cave are delightfully dreadful. In the opera it is the sorceress who sends a spirit "in form of Mercury himself" to command Aeneas to leave Carthage; and in Tate's version it is not just Dido's pyre, but the entire city that burns (although Tate is discreetly inexplicit about the cause of Dido's death).

Any performance of Dido & Aeneas succeeds or fails on the basis of its Dido, and my favorite recording of the opera features Lorraine Hunt (later Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) in the role. She is a powerfully moving Dido, especially in her two great tragic arias: "Ah! Belinda, I am press'd" and "When I am laid in earth." Nicholas McGegan conducts the period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra beautifully: he's sprightly in the dance sections, but brings out the full pathos of Dido's tragic arias. McGegan does go for a very characterful portrayal of the witches and sailors, which may bother some people. And while Michael Dean is a good Aeneas, Ellen Rabiner's Sorceress has a broad vibrato that makes her sound as though she's been airlifted in from some Wagner opera. But despite these minor stylistic issues and several other fine recordings, Lorraine Hunt's Dido makes this my first choice.

Here is Hunt's performance of Dido's first aria, "Ah! Belinda, I am press'd":

The words are, "Ah! Belinda, I am press'd / With torment not to be confess'd. / Peace and I are strangers grown; / I languish 'til my grief is known / Yet would not have it guess'd."

Many modern productions portray the sorceress as an aspect of Dido, and the roles are often performed by the same singer. Choreographer Mark Morris created a danced version of the opera in which he brilliantly enacted both Dido and the Sorceress; this is Dido's death scene (Dido is sung by Jennifer Lane):

The Mark Morris Dance Group, 1994

(Again, if the image doesn't load for some reason, here is a direct link.) Some of the commenters about this clip on YouTube are obviously nonplussed that Dido is being portrayed by a man. They are clearly unaware of how thoroughly gender was bent in Baroque opera. While a male Dido is unusual, a male sorceress is less so (perhaps it enhances her uncanniness). But even more surprising, in the first performance of Dido it's likely that the role of Aeneas was sung by a woman.

A single copy survives of the libretto from the first performance, "by Young Gentlewomen" at a boarding school for girls in 1689.[2] Recently a libretto for John Blow's Venus & Adonis was discovered which was printed for an April 1684 performance of that opera at the same girls' school.[3] The Venus libretto mentions that it was "Perform'd before the King. Afterwards at Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding School at Chelsey." Since Dido was modelled on Venus, some musicologists have speculated that Dido also must have been first performed at court. However, while both an early score and the libretto for Venus explicitly mention a court performance, the sole existing contemporary libretto for Dido does not. The 1684 libretto for Venus does have contemporary hand-written annotations indicating that the part of Adonis was sung by Priest's daughter; presumably the same practice--that is, having all the parts sung by women--was also followed in the 1689 Dido performance.

Alas, no score has yet been discovered that dates from Purcell's short lifetime (he died in 1695, in his mid-30s). The earliest surviving score is from around 1750, although it was apparently copied from a pre-1720 source.[4] There is a prologue in the libretto for which no music has been found, and other issues (such as the original range of the parts of Aeneas and the Sailor) that will remain a matter of speculation.

Nonetheless, what has survived is dramatically compelling and spectacularly beautiful. If you're unfamiliar with Dido & Aeneas, the Lorraine Hunt Lieberson recording is an excellent place to begin your acquaintance.


1. Virgil. The Aeneid. Robert Fitzgerald, trans. New York: Vintage, 1983.

2. Ellen Harris. Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

3. Richard Luckett. A new source for 'Venus and Adonis'. The Musical Times, v. 130 (no. 1752), Feb. 1989, 76-79.

4. A. Margaret Laurie. Allegory, sources, and performance history. In Curtis Price, ed., Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas: An authoritative score (pp. 42-59). New York: Norton, 1986.

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