Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is considered one of England’s greatest composers, with no other native-born composer quite approaching his fame until Edward Elgar. His first opera and only all-sung dramatic work Dido and Aeneas is one of the earliest English operas and one of Purcell’s foremost theatrical works.
Its first known performance was at a girl’s school in Chelsea London, run by a Josias Priest, in July 1689. The story is based on Book IV of the ancient Roman poet Virgil’s epic Aeneid. It describes the love of Dido, Queen of Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) for Trojan hero Aeneas, and her desolation upon being eventually abandoned by him.
The opera is believed to be allegorical. The prologue (the music of which is sadly lost) makes mention of the joy of a marriage between two monarchs, possibly a reference to the marriage between William III and Mary II of England. The opera’s libretto (text) is derived from a play The Enchanted Lovers (1678) by Nahum Tate, who served as England’s poet Laureate from 1692 to 1715 and better known for writing the words to the Christmas carol “While Shepherds watched”. In an earlier poem by Tate, he had compared James II to Aeneas, who is led astray by the Sorceress and her witches, (a common metaphor for Roman Catholicism in Protestant England), abandoning Dido, who symbolizes the British people. This probably explains the addition of the Sorceress and witches in the opera, as they do not feature in Virgil’s Aeneid.
Another interpretation is that the opera carries an important moral nugget within it, cautioning young women not to be swayed by suitors’ promises, as men could always betray their trust. A timeless lesson indeed.
The opera was not performed again in Purcell’s lifetime after the Chelsea performances. Its next noted performance was in 1700, as a masque (entertainment within a play) within Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in London. It then gradually faded into obscurity until 1895, the bicentenary of Purcell’s death when it was performed by students of the Royal College of Music London.
The opera is in three Acts. The first act is set in Dido’s court, with Dido already quite downcast, presumably due to her affection for Aeneas. She fears her love will make her a weak monarch, while her sister and handmaid Belinda and another woman try to reassure her. Aeneas makes an entrance, is at first snubbed, but Dido accepts his marriage proposal.
In the second act, scene one, we are transported to the cave of the Sorceress (sometimes depicted as Sorcerer in an example of gender equality for villains) who with her witches plots and schemes the ruin of Carthage and of Dido. Scene two moves the action to a forest grove where Dido and Aeneas are out hunting. Here Aeneas is tricked by the Sorceress’ elf disguised as Mercury into believing that the gods have commanded him to set sail at once for Italy, to create a new Troy on Latin soil. He is heartbroken at having to leave Dido, but complies.
Act Three opens at the harbor in Carthage, where the Trojan fleet is ready to depart. The Sorceress has a cunning plan to do away with Aeneas on the high seas.
Back in the palace, Dido and Belinda have returned from the hunt, shellshocked by Aeneas’ abrupt disappearance. Aeneas appears and tries to explain himself, but Dido now urges him to leave. Dido sings her last aria, famously known as Dido’s Lament “When I am laid in Earth”, before she dies. The chorus brings the opera to a close, commanding “cupids to scatter roses on her tomb, soft and gentle as her heart. Keep here your watch, and never never never part.”
Purcell precedes both Gluck and Handel in his emphasis of the text over music, and “word painting”, the use of musical tools to enhance the meaning of the text. He believed that “as poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry”.
He uses melismas (several notes of music on the same syllable) for example to ‘paint’ the word ‘storm’ in Dido’s recitative ”Whence could so much virtue spring”, to conjure up its impression; and the word ‘soft’ is ‘coloured’ by a sighing, descending semitone.
Dido’s Lament “When I am laid in Earth” is considered the masterpiece of the opera, and is included in many textbooks of classical music on account of its excellent use of the passus duriusculus (melodic fragment spanning an interval of a perfect fourth, in chromatic steps) in the ground bass. Purcell largely uses major keys to evoke happiness, and minor keys for sadness. Dido’s Lament is in the key of G minor, a tonality also exploited by Mozart for emotions of sadness and tragedy. Purcell uses word painting here too. A descending chromatic line is commonly understood to depict sighing, sobbing, a ‘lamentation’. The word ‘laid’ is painted by this descending line, connoting agony and death. The words ‘darkness’ and ‘death’ in the opening recitative secco “Thy hand, Belinda” preceding Dido’s Lament also get this treatment.
Giving Voice Society headed by Patricia Rozario and Mark Troop present a fully-staged performance of Dido and Aeneas at the Kala Academy on 4 August 2014 at 7 pm. Free limited passes at Furtados Music stores in Panjim and Margão.
(An edited version of this article was published on 3 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)