Opera Guide: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

Purcell packed a marvelously rich variety of music into this work’s hour-long duration. Is there a more powerfully moving expression of resignation in the face of death? Its conciseness is an added bonus for a masterpiece that defined English opera for more than three centuries.

 

This week, I am going to be looking at Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Perhaps I ought to have started with this instead of Les Troyens, giving myself such a daunting and strenuous task of trying to explain Berlioz’s magic in just two articles. Either way, it’s the same story from Virgil’s Aeneid. Aeneas meets Dido, but he has to go and found Rome. Dismayed at his betrayal, Dido bids farewell to life (What is this obsession with immolation as a cleansing act?). Cheerful story.

Thanks to its modest demands, this opera is frequently put on by amateurs. I first saw this at school, in a student production. The band was just a string quartet with a harpsichord continuo. Did I relate this work to John Blow’s Venus and Adonis or Francesco Cavalli’s Didone back then? Not a chance. I wouldn’t have even recognised these names at the time. What caught my naive attention was this vigour in the storytelling. The narrative was thrust into my face with the same freshness that I would expect of a bunch of coriander, and I was persuaded to engage with the drama, to feel the emotions shared by the characters, and attempt to understand them within myself. Perhaps I will explore this in future articles, but I believe that the purpose of art is to reflect life, encompassing both the beautiful and the ugly. It may not be naturalistic by design, in order to highlight certain aspects. Exploring these issues through art, both as the creator and the audience is a system of trying to understand, and coming to terms with life. In my capacity as a History of Art student, this is also something I encounter in the visual arts. With infectious dances and catchy tunes, I was enchanted with Purcell’s opera. All the numbers are very short, much like the three- to four-minute song model of pop music, for which my short attention span back then was extremely grateful.

Like Italian opera, which stemmed partly from the intermedio (intermezzo) – other influences included the pastoral, madrigal, monody, and recitative (I’ll discuss them when I come to talk about Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo) – English opera grew out of the theatrical tradition of the court masque. Songs and dances were inserted into spoken plays. Influenced by the ‘thorough-composed’ Italian model, where the drama was carried entirely by the music, Blow’s Venus and Adonis is probably the first true opera in English, followed shortly afterwards by Purcell’s own. The libretto is by Nahum Tate, with the first known performance at Josias Priest’s boarding school for girls in 1689. It’s Purcell’s first and only all-sung dramatic work, although he wrote other masques like King Arthur, The Fairy Queen, and The Indian Queen.

Purcell died aged 35 or 36. This was tragedy of a seismic scale for English music. English opera had to wait until Benjamin Britten – and in particular, Peter Grimes of 1945 – for a truly confident and distinctive voice. This peculiar situation wasn’t just in opera; there was a drought of good composers for nearly the entire eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England. Plenty of time for the Germans to come up with the criticism ‘Das Land ohne Musik’, land without music. Quite an insult. What if Purcell had lived longer is a question that one never ceases to ponder.

Let’s start with the most famous number, ‘When I am laid in earth’, also known as Dido’s Lament. Purcell takes care to introduce the bass line on its own first, so that there is no mistaking its expressive role. It’s a chaconne with a ground bass. This ostinato pattern, also called passus driusculus, is repeated nine times. It descends chromatically and then returns to a fourth higher, as though sobbing, universally signifying a lament in music. The Crucifixus of Bach’s Mass in B minor is another example. Here is Janet Baker with Charles Mackerras in the 1966 Glyndebourne production. She owned that role. If you’re unmoved by the final cry of ‘Remember me’ onto the high G, what can I say. I’m sorry for you. It makes me glad that I’m a human, to be moved by such heart-rending music.

New Picture

Back to the beginning with the overture. It sets the scene straight away. In the form of a French overture (slow section in dotted rhythms followed by a fast fugal section), the dissonance at the beginning is tinged with melancholy.

Everything following the overture is wonderful, but alas, the purpose of such a guide is to highlight. Solo arias are followed or answered by a chorus, with danced interludes. Belinda’s ‘Shake the cloud from off your brow’ is catchy. Note the word painting – she literally shakes her voice as she sings shake. Word painting, a device found in madrigals, is so expressive in Purcell’s hands. His word setting is done with such unforced ease and grace. The music subtly highlights the words, and the natural emphases never become predictable. Something Britten would also be noted for. Highly influenced by Purcell, Britten would take the theme for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. (Is there a better introduction to the orchestra, and the different characters of all the instruments, superbly illustrated by Britten? An educational work for children that is also music of an astonishing quality.) He utilised forms like the chaconne (Second String Quartet), realised a number of songs, and edited Dido and Aeneas with Imogen Holst.

‘Fear no danger’ is a fun dance. Yay triple metre! I also love ‘Pursue thy conquest, love’ and the ‘Triumphing Dance’ that follows. Yes, I dance to these tunes in my bedroom. They get your feet skipping. It’s not mannered music. It’s visceral, eliciting powerful reactions from your body, as well as your brain. Buy one get one free. I think it’s good value.

Malevolent witches plot havoc. The sorceress is a boldly melodramatic character, declaiming recitative rather than singing arias. Aeneas is her victim, stiff and weak. Such venom as the sorceress spits out, ‘The Queen of Carthage, whom we hate.’ Why they hate Dido is unexplained, and their scene ends very abruptly; some music is thought to have been lost at this point. In my school’s production, this role was taken by a tenor, who had elongated legs and arms, with fingers that pointed accusingly into the audience. Cross-dressed, J. C. brought a certain regal air to the character (or maybe that was just his natural pretensions, looking down at us lower years); thus I imagined the sorceress a bit like Ovid’s Medusa, twisted into a villain through circumstances.

‘Ritornelle – Thanks to these lonesome vales’ and ‘Haste, haste to town’ are other examples of Purcell’s endless supple melodies. CHOONZ! You’ll find students continuously humming them because they are just soo good.

Act III opens with the Prelude, and leads to ‘Come away, fellow sailors’, sang by the First Sailor, and in turn, answered by the Chorus. ‘Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore, and silence their mourning with vows of returning, though never intending to visit them more.’ Wow,  pretty callous. This opera is likely to be allegorical, at least to some extent, and the cynicism in this ironically cheerful song underlies the moral of the story – young women, beware of young men’s advances.

After Dido’s Lament, the Chorus finish this opera (‘With drooping wings’). Because it’s so good, you can listen to it again, this time with Sarah Connolly from the Last Night of the Proms in 2009. Don’t be fooled by its small scale. Purcell’s packed a punch.

The American choreographer Mark Morris put this opera in new context, in a production that premiered at the Théâtre Varia in Brussels in 1989. The singers were in the pit with the orchestra, and it was danced on stage. Morris himself doubled as Dido and the Sorceress, with minimal settings and simple costumes. A useful reminder that in Purcell’s conception of opera, dance was as important as song.

This opera is a miniature gem, lasting under an hour, and yet a perfect model in terms of pacing the drama, and contrasts in mood. Of the complete opera on YouTube, you can find Christopher Hogwood’s recording with the Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Hickox with Collegium Musicum 90, or Ricercar Consort & Collegium Vocale Gent conducted by Philippe Pierlot.

Next week, I will be back to discuss Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. I love Strauss, I am a massive fan. Besides, this year is his 150th anniversary. Please let me know in the comments below if there are any specific operas that you would want me to discuss. Until next week for now, I leave you with the promotional video for Emmanuelle Haim’s recording of Dido and Aeneas. The musicians are having so much fun.

Recordings:

Sarah Connolly, Gerald Finley, Lucy Crowe; Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Steven Devine and Elizabeth Kenny. Chandos, CHAN 0757

Anne Sofie von Otter, Lynne Dawson, Stephen Varcoe; The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock. Deutsche Grammophon Archiv Produktion, 427 624-1

 

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