PURCELL'S DIDO AND AENEASThe music for this early opera (1689) was composed by Henry Purcell, to a libretto by Nahum Tate, for the School for Young Gentlewomen in Chelsea, run by Josiah Priest, a dancing master. So there is no lack of dances in the piece. Priest cried ‘Bring on the dancing girls’, at every opportunity. The girls of the school (more than three little maids) would have been the singers and dancers. Aeneas is the only male; even the sailor was a soprano.
A Canadian production on video has the dancers performing on the stage continually, with a counterpart for each of the principal characters (and when volunteers were invited to try for the part of the Queen, a guy put his hand up and said ‘Pick me’, and they did; actually he is the leader of the company, Mark Morris [not to be confused with Mock Morris, or Morris dancers]).
There is an optional prologue with Phoebus the sun, and Venus, and plenty of shepherdesses. The correct fore-play would have been the sack of Troy with the Greeks’ wooden horse being incinerated in the conflagration, and Aeneas fleeing with his son Anchises.
OVERTURE (starts ‘Adagio’, changing to ‘Quick’)
ACT 1 The Palace of Queen Dido in the Phoenician city Carthage, in north Africa.
Belinda, sister and mentor of Dido, tells her to cease her grieving (presumably for her deceased husband): ‘Shake the cloud from off your brow; Fate your wishes does allow; empire growing, pleasures flowing; Fortune smiles, and so should you’.
Chorus supports Belinda: ‘Banish sorrow, banish care; grief should ne’er approach the fair’.
Dido replies that she is concealing another anxiety.
Belinda suggests that ‘the Trojan guest into your tender thoughts has press’d’.
A woman and the chorus assert that Troy could be revived and Carthage could be revitalized by an alliance of Dido and Aeneas.
Dido remains apprehensive, but the chorus seeks to reassure her: ‘Fear no danger to ensue, the hero loves as well as you’; ‘Cupids strew your path with flowers’. Love is in the air with its attendant butterflies in the atmosphere and in the stomach.
Aeneas now enters ‘with his train’ (boys need toys), and asks when he will be ‘bless’d’, weighed down as he is, ‘by cares of love and state distress’d’.
Dido admonishes him: ‘Fate forbids what you pursue’ (her, presumably).
He protests: ‘Aeneas has no fate but you! Let Dido smile, and I’ll defy the feeble stroke of Destiny’. He is supposed to be going to Italy to found a new Troy/Ilias called Roma.
The chorus comes in with information about Cupid’s dart being ‘dread-ful to a warrior’s heart’, but ‘she that wounds’ can ‘cure the smart’.
Aeneas, in self-pity, pleads: ‘If not for mine, for empire’s sake, some pity on your lover take’.
Belinda pipes up: ‘Pursue thy conquest, Love’, ‘her eyes confess the flame she denies’.
Whereupon the chorus gets excited at the prospect of love triumphing: ‘Go revel ye Cupids, the day is your own’; ‘let the triumphs of love and of beauty be shown’ ‘to the hills and the vales’, and mountains and groves, and other places where the Phoenician Queen and the Trojan prince will express their love.
ACT 2 The Cave (not the one you are thinking of)
A sorceress summons the witches to join her in wreaking havoc in Carthage.
O yes, they sing with glee: ‘Harm’s our delight, and mischief all our skill’.
She continues: ‘The Queen of Carthage, whom we hate’, ‘ere sunset shall most wretched prove, deprived of fame, of life, and love’;’the Queen and he are now in chase’ (out hunting).
Now, what happens elsewhere (when a ladies college is not involved) is that a storm comes up (I just had lightning and thunder here, a moment ago) and the royal pair chase each other into a cave, and there they dally.
Certainly this sorceress conjures up a storm, merely to maliciously ‘mar their hunting sport’; but she will then have her ‘trusty elf’ appear to Aeneas in the form of Mercury himself. ‘sent from Jove’, ‘and charge him sail tonight, with all his fleet away’.
The witches chant in their reverberating cavern: ‘In our deep vaulted cell’ (echo: -ed cell), ‘the charm we’ll prepare, too dreadful a practice for this open air’. An echo dance of furies ensues.
It all happens as planned. And Belinda urges every one to ‘haste to town’.
ACT 3 The Ships
‘Come away, fellow sailors’, ‘take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore, and silence their mourning with vows of returning, but never intending to visit them more’.
‘Our plot has took, the Queen’s forsook’; ‘Ho ho ho’,’Elissa dies tonight, and Carthage flames tomorrow’.
Dido: ‘Away, away’.
Aeneas: ‘No, no, I’ll stay, and Love obey’.
(‘Great minds against themselves conspire, and shun the cure they most desire.’) ‘Exit Aeneas.’
‘When I am laid in earth’, Dido laments, ‘remember me’, ‘but ah! forget my fate’.
This is one of the two operas I have performed in, a couple of times, in concert, in the chorus. The other is Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor, on stage, in costume, in the chorus, in Wanganui and Palmerston North, with the Perkel opera company. In rehearsals I had the part of a reeling drunk; in the performance I had to step aside for the guy who did it in Auckland.