Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
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