Pur­cell’s Dido and Ae­neas

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week -

Henry Pur­cell’s opera Dido and Ae­neas was first “per­form’d by young gen­tle­women” at a board­ing school in Chelsea, Lon­don, in 1689 (less than a decade af­ter the Pue­blo Re­volt in New Mex­ico). Pur­cell’s tragic opera, grounded in Greek and Ro­man mythol­ogy, has an­other out­ing on Sun­day, Feb. 7, pre­sented by the Santa Fe Sym­phony & Cho­rus.

The opera, based on Vir­gil’s Aeneid, tells of the love be­tween Dido, queen of Carthage, and Ae­neas, a Tro­jan and son of the god­dess Aphrodite and An­chises, a mor­tal. In this one-hour, English-lan­guage work, Pur­cell, who was born in 1659 and died in his mid-30s, cre­ated some­thing that was “cer­tainly be­yond its time,” said the sym­phony’s choral di­rec­tor, Linda Raney, who con­ducts Dido and Ae­neas. The head­mas­ter of the girls’ board­ing school was Josias Priest. “He was a dance mas­ter, so a lot of the orches­tral in­ter­ludes in this piece im­me­di­ately set the imagination to danc­ing,” said Raney, who has been re­hears­ing Dido and Ae­neas with her singers since Novem­ber.

“Our soloists are Sarah Ih­le­feld, who re­cently got her mas­ter’s in opera at Rice Uni­ver­sity, do­ing Dido; and Ae­neas is TimWill­son, who’s a real main­stay in Santa Fe th­ese days and who came to us from the Metropoli­tan Opera cho­rus.” Also in the cast are Sasha Garver as Belinda, SarahWeiler as the sor­cer­ess, Jay Hill as a sailor, Ali­cia Solomon as the sec­ond witch and spirit, and Rene M. Sosa-Proven­cio as the first witch and sec­ond woman.

Ac­cord­ing to myth, Ae­neas was a skilled fighter dur­ing the Tro­jan War, al­though some­times, in a pinch, Aphrodite helped him out. It is said that Ae­neas sal­vaged the sa­cred statue Pal­la­dium and se­cretly trans­ported it to the fu­ture site of Rome. Af­ter the de­struc­tion of Troy, Ae­neas spent years sail­ing around the Mediter­ranean be­fore a ship­wreck stranded him and his crew in Carthage (on the coast of what is to­day Tu­nisia). It was there that he and Queen Dido fell in love — and it is at this point in the story that the opera be­gins. The plot turns to­ward tragedy when Dido learns that the gods ex­pect Ae­neas to con­tinue his jour­ney to Italy to found a “new Troy” (Rome).

The pro­duc­tion in Santa Fe is staged as a con­cert. “Al­though it was set up orig­i­nally as a dra­matic pro­duc­tion, I be­lieve con­cert ver­sions be­came pop­u­lar in the 1700s,” Raney said. “I think the rea­son why this piece was so pop­u­lar in con­cert form as well as in stag­ings by the Met and other no­table groups is that it’s just so evoca­tive. Your imagination goes wild, be­tween the mu­sic and the words.”

Raney is pleased with her se­lec­tion of the edi­tion by Mar­garet Lau­rie and Thurston Dart, which fea­tures singing parts “all midrange, none above the G,” she said. “The li­bretto is by Nahum Tate, an Ir­ish poet, and it’s amaz­ing how he packs his sen­tences with won­der­ful im­ages. For in­stance, the very first phrase that Belinda sings to Dido is ‘ Shake the clouds from off your brow.’ ” Tate de­parted from the epic poem, adding a sor­cer­ess and witches. The sor­cer­ess or­ders a spirit to dis­guise it­self as the gods’ mes­sen­ger, Mer­cury, and pester Ae­neas to de­part.

“To­ward the end of this opera,” Raney said, “there’s a duet be­tween Dido and Ae­neas where Ae­neas says the gods want him to leave, and she im­me­di­ately says, ‘ Well, go off, then.’ He says, ‘ No, I will defy the gods and I won’t go,’ but she says, ‘ Go.’ She’s had it with him. She even calls him a de­ceit­ful croc­o­dile. It’s such a uni­ver­sal theme, where the thing we need the most is the thing we push away from us.

“The cho­rus then re­sponds. This is very much like a Greek cho­rus that com­ments on what is go­ing on in the drama or plays dif­fer­ent parts, and here the cho­rus ends up with the lovely line, ‘ Great minds against them­selves con­spire, and shun the cure they most de­sire.’ ”

Then comes the aria known as “Dido’s Lament.” “That’s one of the most im­por­tant pieces of this era in mu­sic his­tory,” Raney said. “You wit­ness this evo­lu­tion of Dido’s char­ac­ter— she be­gins in grief, and that grief just grows and grows and grows through the work, and then this last lament, the way it’s set and the text is so sim­ple, but the pathos and the mu­sic is so mov­ing.”

The cho­rus has the last words, “With droop­ing wings ye Cupids come and scat­ter roses on her tomb.” The role of the cho­rus in Dido and Ae­neas is “tremen­dously im­por­tant,” Raney said. “They have at least four parts per act, mak­ing com­ments, or some­times they’ll re­peat a soloist’s aria in an ex­panded form.”

Asked about the mu­sic, Raney said that “There’s a real trans­parency to Pur­cell. I’d say it’s very ef­fi­cient, and the text of Tate sup­ports that. There aren’t a vast num­ber of words, so when a zinger comes out, you’re not too worn out to no­tice it, and I think the mu­sic does the same thing. I think it’s amaz­ing that we are able to cover so much emo­tional ter­ri­tory in an hour.

“This has been a dream of mine, to do this piece, since I was a sopho­more in col­lege. It’s such a pow­er­ful piece. It should be good com­pe­ti­tion to the Su­per Bowl.”

End­less love: Dido and Ae­neas, from a fresco in Pom­peii

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