Online opera guide and synopsis to Purcell’s DIDO AND AENEAS
Dido and Aeneas is the greatest work of the “Orpheus britannicus” Henry Purcell, who shows himself with this work to be a master of the baroque form. His lamenti are unsurpassed, his tone painting imaginative, his dissonances bold and with “When I am laid in earth” he wrote one of the most beautiful arias of the whole baroque age.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
London 1689 (possibly earlier, sources unclear).
Libretto by Nahum Tate, based on the fourth book of Virgil's Aeneid.
The main roles
Dido, Queen of Carthage (soprano) - Aeneas, a Trojan prince (baritone or tenor) - Belinda, Dido's sister (soprano) - Sorceress, leader of the witches (mezzo-soprano)
There is no handwritten record of this work by Purcell, only a libretto is available from the time of composition. The source of the composition consists of a copy for a performance which took place 50 years later. The music is written simply by Purcell’s standards, from which some experts base their assumption that the original was more “sophisticated” and written for the English court. The facts do not allow a clear conclusion, the first confirmed knowledge of a performance can be dated to 1689 in a London girls’ boarding school. Through knowledge of the libretto, we know that a few pieces are lost (e.g., the ending of the “grove” scene and some dances).
Purcells set a libretto by Nahum Tate to tune, who based his story on Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid. However, he changed the plot considerably, for example, he added the story of the sorceress and the witches, and he had Dido die at the end, which is astonishing, since the opera seria form common on the continent prescribed a happy ending, the so-called “lieto fine”.
The libretto is divided into 6 scenes. Each scene is dramatically divided into a joyful and a sad episode and follow a classical key signature, which is divided into a major and a minor part. Harmonically, it is interesting that Purcell does not bring together minor parallels or similar affinities, but contrasts, for example, C major and C minor, and F major and F minor, respectively.
Purcell’s use of dissonance were masterful; see the commentary further down on the aria “When I am laid in earth” (Dido’s Lamento) and the overture for note examples on this theme.
Purcell used many classical techniques of the baroque era. In addition to the lamenti he was a master of tone painting, in which natural events or actions were imitated by musical means. A good example is how Dido sings the roll of thunder in the thunderstorm scene:
Choir and dance music
Purcell gave great importance to these two elements. There is a great scenic variety: we can see ballet and choral interludes from witches, sailors, furies and courtiers. In English music at this time, ballet music was not actually given much importance; it is thought that the patron was the dancing master Josiah Priest, who desired these forms; there may have been even more scenes that have been lost.
DIDO AND AENEAS ACT I
The gloomy mood of the Queen of Carthage
Synopsis: In Dido’s palace in Carthage. The queen is sad, for she has supposedly fallen unhappily in love with Aeneas, who had fled from burning Troy and whom she had hospitably welcomed.
The ouverture follows the classic French pattern established by Lully, with a slow first and fast second section. The painfully beautiful chromatisms of the slow part are particularly beautiful. A particularly wonderful chromaticism can be found in the middle of the slow part, highlighted by Purcell with an sf:
Ouverture – Haim
Synopsis: Her sister Belinda tries to encourage her to enjoy the pleasures of love.
We find a particularly accomplished example of tone painting right at the beginning of this aria, where Belinda sings “Shake the cloud” and Purcell immediately shakes the sung word masterfully with musical means:
Shake the cloud from off your brow – Pierce
Synopsis: The choir joins in Belinda’s encouragement.
Banish sorrow, banish care
Love for Aeneas unsettles Dido
Synopsis: Dido is agitated. She should be in mourning, her husband had fallen to war. But her love for the Trojan prince Aeneas triggers a storm within her.
In this aria, Purcell obsessively uses a technique of the Baroque: to accompany this lament aria of Dido, Purcell has the motif of the basso ostinato (ground bass) repeated no less than 21 times:
Over this Purcell composes an expressive song. Purcell intensifies the dramatic effect with sometimes strong melismas (word stretches):
We hear this aria sung by the legendary Janet Baker, who made her name primarily with oratorios and selected operas.
Ah! Belinda, I am prest with torment – Baker
Synopsis: The choir wants the empires of Troy and Carthage to unite.
When monarchs unite – Harnoncourt
Synopsis: The chorus encourages Dido, for Aeneas has also fallen in love with her.
A beautiful polyphonic chorus in which Purcell plays with 3/4 and 4/4 meters.
Fear no danger – Lewis
Aeneas invokes his love
Synopsis: Aeneas appears and confesses his love to Dido, but Dido hesitates to return it, for she had sworn after her husband’s death never to get involved with a man again. The chorus encourages Dido to accept Aeneas’ love.
Cupid only throws the dart – Lewis
Dido confesses her love
Synopsis: Aeneas begs her to at least hear him out for saving Troy. Belinda also encourages Dido to accept his love, whereupon Dido silently shows her consent.
Pursue thy conquest, love – Pierce
Synopsis: The choir celebrates the God of Love for making the union possible.
To the hills and the vales – Gardiner
Synopsis: And they celebrate the union with a dance.
The triumphing dance – Lewis
DIDO AND AENEAS ACT II
With the witches
Synopsis: In a cave. A sorceress is with the witches and tells them about her plan to destroy the Carthaginians. The witches agree enthusiastically, because to commit misdeeds is their mission. The witch wants to bring misfortune to Dido, the queen of Carthage. Glory, love and life are to be taken away from her. The witches are enthusiastic.
Wayward sisters … Harm’s our delight … The queen of Carthage, whom we hate … hohoho
Synopsis: The witches want to know how this will happen. The sorceress explains that a phantom in the form of Mercury will appear to Aeneas and exhort him to seek out Italy and set sail. But first they want to cause a storm that will drive Dido and Aeneas from the forest back to their courtyard on the day of the hunt. The Furies perform a dance to celebrate.
This piece is also called “Echo Dance of the Furies” because Purcell has short choral passages repeated again and again by a choir in the background as an echo. A surprising and charming effect!
In our deep vaulted cell – Gardiner
At Dido’s hunting party
Synopsis: In the forest with Dido’s hunting party. Belinda thanks the gods for the rich booty.
Thanks to these lonesome vales – Dawson
Synopsis: A woman tells the story of Actaeon. He had watched the goddess Diana bathing and as punishment was turned into a stag, which was then chased and killed by his own dogs.
Oft she visits this lone mountain – de Boever
Synopsis: A thunderstorm is coming up. Belinda and Dido ask the company to return to the palace.
Haste, haste to town – Sheppard
Aeneas learns the sad news
Synopsis: The phantom of Mercury appears and asks Aeneas in the name of Jupiter to sail to Italy today. Aeneas wants to obey the command of the gods, but the parting from Dido pains him, he does not know how to explain it to her.
DIDO AND AENEAS ACT III
Synopsis: At the port, the sailors are ready to sail.
Come away, fellow sailors … The sailor’s dance
With the witches and the sorceress – their plan works
Synopsis: Delighted, the sorceress and the witches observe the events, their plan works.
See the flags and the streamers curling – Harnoncourt
Synopsis: The sorceress announces that after the departure of Aeneas, a terrible storm will hit him. The witches rejoice, because destruction is their pleasure.
See the flags and the streamers curling … Our next motion … Destruction’s our delight … The witches’ dance
Dido is deeply unhappy
Synopsis: Dido is devastated. Belinda explains to Dido that Aeneas is honestly grieving. The latter appears and explains to Dido that the gods are forcing his departure. But Dido accuses him of taking the commission only as an excuse to leave her. Then Aeneas decides to reject the order of the gods and to stay. But Dido is no longer interested. The mere fact that he has thought of leaving her is reason enough for her to break off her love. The chorus cannot understand Dido’s reaction.
Great minds against themselves conspire – Harnoncourt
Dido makes the cruel decision – the aria “When I am laid in earth”
Synopsis: Dido only wants to die. Once again she turns to Belinda, only to die by her own hand.
This aria is one of the great arias of opera literature, a lamento, a classic product of baroque opera. It is immensely effectively written and is one of the handful of baroque lamentos that can truly move the listener to tears.
Purcell wrote this piece tremendously effectively. He begins with a downward chromatic motif in the bass accompaniment that becomes a deeply sad ostinato and a constantly repeated motif (called “ground bass”):
At the end of the ostinato, Dido enters with her lament:
This melody captivates with many great effects. Particularly impressive: in contrast to the downward direction of the accompanying voice, Dido’s melody strives upward with leaps (and subsequent downward notes) (from the g at “when” to the e at “no”, which makes Dido’s discord visible. Also contributing to the somber mood is the beautiful appoggiatura on the first “laid” (an added dissonance, foreign to the melody, that occurs on the stressed part of the measure and is resolved on the next note). We find another beautiful effect of the singing voice in the above note example in the somber tritone on “Trouble”
In the second part, Purcell introduces another element in the voice part, “Remember me,” which is enchanting in its simplicity:
With the last “Remember me” Purcell lets the music float into comforting heights, before it goes into the depths of despair with “forget my fate” at the end.
You will hear this aria in 2 versions:
Perhaps the most bleak and thus most moving recording is by Janet Baker. She sings the aria in a stifled voice, which opens only with the last bars and thus creates a great effect.
When I am laid in earth – Baker
With her rich voice we hear Leontyne Price’s gospel-like, powerful dirge.
When I am laid in earth – Price
Synopsis: Dido is buried and the chorus asks the love gods to scatter rose petals over her grave.
With drooping wings you Cupids come – Mc Gegan
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to DIDO AND AENEAS by Henry Purcell