Writing about "Dido & Aeneas" is difficult, more so that about any other work. It is well-known, well-recorded and well-worth our attention, so the possibilities of saying anything new about the piece may seem rather limited on first sight but I will try to highlight some of the work's history and characteristics.
Performance history and synopsis. "Dido and Aeneas" was commissioned by and first performed at Josias Priest's School for Young Ladies in Chelsea. The libretto is by Nahum Tate, who extracted the story of Queen Dido and the sailor, Aeneas, from Virgil's "Aeneid": the story concerns the eponymous Trojan hero, Aeneas, who is shipwrecked at Carthage, where the queen, Dido, falls in love with him. Aeneas returns her love, but knows he must leave eventually: it is his destiny to found Rome. This realization is confirmed by a vision of "Mercury", a pawn of the sorceress in reality. After their final parting, Dido realizes she cannot live without him and looks forward to her death. An additional detail is the appearance of witches, rather than Greek gods, as the bringers of the lovers' tragedy.
Character. "Dido" is considered to be the only true opera that Purcell composed: truly, its' continuous musical flow and purpose-written libretto set it apart from his other dramatic works, which are more properly considered semi-operas, though traces of this compositional penchant can be seen through numerous "incidental" pieces, such as the sailor's song or the second woman's lament, which are used to comment on the action but are relatively separated from it.
Although brief, "Dido" nevertheless embraces a very wide range of emotional content, and achieves a dramatic lyricism that was then unprecedented in England. Moreover, I strongly feel that the brevity of the work only highlights the realism it embodies. This does, however, come at a price: for example, the crucial role of Aeneas seems unjustly smallish. But if one looks closely at the music, it becomes clear that "Dido" actually follows the standard operatic model: several places, like, for example, Aeneas' three recitatives, would be suitable openings for full arias, while existing pieces, as the lovers' final duet, could have been prolonged. But Purcell forgoes these possibilities in favor of a much simpler, yet effective, story.
Purcell obviously tailored the score to the performing forces available at Priest's school: there are only four principal roles; the numbers themselves, with the possible exception of Didos arias, are brief; the orchestra consists of just strings and continuo; together, the opera's three acts last only about one hour; dances in the piece, such as the "dance of triumph" for Dido's court, liberally used in the score, were most likely written at the suggestion of Priest who was a dance instructor. These characteristics could make one consider the work something of a school play for singers in learning. However, Dido is not a work for amateurs: the vocal writing demands highly skilled singers, and the presence of male voices in the score (not least of which is Aeneas himself, a tenor) indicates that some professional performers were most likely imported for the first production. Even so, if there was any kind of simplification of the score for the sake of the young performers (considering the way baroque was going, the score features little coloratura or virtuoso demands, the most ornamented piece being the witches duettino), it actually helps make the story more intensely human, instead of astounding us with flashy cadences.
Nahum Tates libretto, formed mainly of rhyming couplets, contains expressive touches within such a compact frame as to provide a composer with dramatic sensibilities and ample matter to assist the drawing of an inspired work. Moreover, Purcell himself demonstrates skill in bringing the words to life. For example, in Dido's recitative, "Whence could so much virtue spring", Purcell paints the word "storm" with a melisma to conjure up the impression of a storm. This contrasts to the painting of the word "soft", a few bars later, which uses a sighing, descending semitone. But let us pass onto the work and let it talk for itself.
I've chosen a recording of the work that is both delightful vocally and superbly dramatic. In fact, this is the recording that introduced me to the work and by which I still measure all other interpretations. It is conducted by Hogwood and features a cast of true professionals, including Catherine Bott, Emma Kirkby, David Thomas and John Mark Ainsley. Hope you'll enjoy it :)!
The work opens with a brief but surprisingly intense overture, seemingly following the Lully model with its' contrasting movements with the last presto leading naturally into Belinda's upbeat opening arioso. Enjoy :)!