DIDO AND AENEAS
by Henry Purcell
Dido, Queen of Carthage (soprano)
Aeneas, Prince of Trojan (baritone)
Belinda, Dido's serving maid (soprano)
This is Purcell's operatic masterpiece: Dido and Aeneas. First performed in 1689 as a school production, at Mr. Josias Priest's boarding school at Chelsy by girls, this relatively short length one-hour English opera (in three acts) has a lot of choral singing and dancing.
In this opera Purcell, known as "the British Orpheus" because of the lyricism of his works, assimilated the achievements of the Continent- the dynamic instrumental style, the movement toward major-minor tonality. the recitative, aria and ground bass of Italian opera, and the French overture and the dance rhythms of the French- and adapted them to England.
The story is taken from Book Four of Virgil's 'Aeneid', in which the hero Aeneas, returning from Troy, is shipwrecked at Carthage where he falls in love with its queen, Dido. But the gods urge him to leave and the broken-hearted Dido kills herself.
Here is a detailed outline of the music:
In the third act, Dido prepares to meet her fate - death - in the moving recitative "Thy hand, Belinda", with much chromaticism and half-step movement (sigh motive), that introduces her lament aria.
In the recitative secco, Dido sings, accompanied by continuo only, to her maid:
darkness shades me. The word darkness is highlighted by falling melismatic treatment. Word painting in the use of the C minor chord on the word Death brings out the sadness of the last line Death is now a welcome guest.
The emotional, slow-moving lament "When I am laid in earth" (G minor), in two sections, each repeated (A-A-B-B), unfolds over a five-measure ground bass (ostinato) in triple meter (3/2), descending along the chromatic scale as a symbol of grief.
When I am laid in earth
May my wrongs create No trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate.
The ground bass is played eleven times, the first time is the instrumental introduction, the last two times serve as an instrumental closing. The phrase "laid in earth" is rendered musically by a downward movement of the notes. In section B "Remember me, remember me, but ah, forget my fate" Dido sings "Remember me" repeatedly six times, and in highly expressive rising lines.
Dido mounts the funeral pyre whose flames light the way for Aeneas ships as they sail out of the harbour. The opera closes with an emotional chorus of cupids With drooping wings mourning Dido's fate.
Susan Graham, soprano
Le Concert dAstrée
Conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm