Peabody Chamber Opera and Department of Early Music
present a semi-staged performance of
Dido & Aeneas
by Henry Purcell
libretto by Nahum Tate
Preceded by Purcell’s incidental music to
The Double Dealer
by William Congreve (1693)
The Peabody Renaissance Ensemble
The Baltimore Baroque Band
John Moran and Risa Browder, co-directors
Adam Pearl, music director
Roger Brunyate, stage director
Lisa Green-Cudek, choreographer
Grace & St. Peter’s Church
Monument and Park Streets, Baltimore
Saturday, November 3, 2007, at 7:30 PM
The only known performance of Dido and Aeneas in Purcell’s lifetime took place in December, 1685, at a boarding school for young ladies in Chelsea, run by the dancing-master Josias Priest. Since it contains several male roles, however, it may have been given at court first and later arranged for the girls. At any rate, this was the case with its immediate predecessor, Venus and Adonis by John Blow, performed at the school the previous year. While Purcell could not challenge Blow for the distinction of having written the first English opera (albeit following French models), he produced a masterpiece which has held the stage to this day.
Purcell’s librettist, Nahum Tate, took the story from Virgil's Aeneid, which tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas after the sack of Troy, sailing all over the Mediterranean en route to Italy where (in this legend) he will found the city of Rome. He stops at Carthage in North Africa and falls in love with its Queen, Dido. In the course of a celebratory hunt, the royal couple are separated by a sudden storm, during which a goddess appears to Aeneas summoning him to return to his destiny. He leaves Carthage the same night, and Dido kills herself in grief.
Tate and Purcell, however, play down the mythological aspects and turn Dido and Aeneas into one of the first psychodramas. Dido and her attendants are shadowed by a Sorceress and two witches, who plot to destroy her happiness. The would-be-constant Aeneas is reflected by a love’em and leave’em Sailor. It is almost as though the characters create their own tragedy from within. As the opera begins, Dido is melancholy and heartsick, reluctant to expose her vulnerability by accepting Aeneas. It is only with difficulty that her courtiers persuade her. Their celebrations are immediately answered by the malicious glee of the witches. One of the entertainments in the hunt scene is a sung and danced account of the death of Actaeon; the irony of his tragic story in the midst of celebration brings a chill to the air even before the storm breaks full force. Dido hears the drunken revels of Aeneas’ sailors from the harbor, and knows the worst. When Aeneas offers to stay after all, she immediately rejects him, retreating into the proud shell with which she started, and revealing her vulnerability only to her women once Aeneas has left and she is on her death bed.
Illustration top right: Henry Purcell, attributed to John Closterman (lettering added). In text, from top to bottom: 1/ Detail from the original libretto (colorized). 2/ Chelsea in the 18th century. 3/ Dido and Aeneas by Giambattista Tiepolo. 4/ Dido, attributed to Christophe Cochet (17th century).