TWO PERFORMANCES! | Learn more
Saturday, November 27, 2010 at 8pm
Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 3pm
Despite its familiarity to modern audiences and its tenacious popularity with a wide spectrum of performers, ranging from the London Philharmonic and the North German Radio Symphony to Les Arts Florissants and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Dido and Aeneas is one of the more mysterious works to emerge out of the highly experimental world of English opera during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. We know precious little about it apart from the fact that the text was written by the poet Nahum Tate and the music composed by Henry Purcell, and that a performance—probably not the premiere—took place at a boarding school for young gentlewomen outside London, sometime in 1688. Around these bare facts scholars have spun a web of speculation that helps to illuminate our understanding but which has also spawned considerable disagreement: Dido is now thought originally to have been composed for the English royal court—but whether for Charles II, perhaps in 1684, or for his brother and successor James II, possibly around 1687, is not known. The subsequent boarding-school performance might actually have consisted of two or more separate productions, mounted in successive years. And the work’s retelling of the most famous episode from Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, may be a mere exercise in neoclassical paraphrase, or it may harbor a concealed allegorical message that speaks directly to the explosive political situation that bedeviled England throughout the 1680s.
Our incomplete understanding of Dido is compounded by the flawed nature of the surviving musical sources, none of which predates the 1770s, and which uniformly present us with what appears to be a severely truncated work. Substantial portions of Tate’s libretto, including an elaborate allegorical prologue, are missing from the score, and there is good reason to believe that a number of dances and other instrumental movements may be lacking as well. If all of these elements were to be added back in, it is likely that the length of the piece in performance would be approximately double what it is today.
Still and all, the work is remarkable for its extraordinary frugality, both literary and musical. Tate’s spare poetry, frequently derided in modern times for its supposed banality, is deployed with startling efficiency, and Purcell’s music (at least what survives of it) is taut and meticulously assembled, allowing for rapid yet seemingly effortless shifts of color and intensity, not only in individual passages of recitative, but on a larger scale as well, in the kaleidoscopic movement from solo to chorus to dance, or (to instance only the opening scene) from forlorn ground-bass jeremiad to airy rondo duet to breathless invocation of Cupid to celebratory triumph. Even the act and scene breaks, with their abrupt changes of mood, are executed with a musical and structural precision and an unerring sense of the dramatic that is rarely found in opera from any era.
In fact, the term “opera” as applied to Dido and Aeneas is a misnomer: that name carried a quite different meaning to contemporaries, at least in England, where the national “genius” was deemed to be more suited to a hybrid, sung-and-spoken musical theater—something akin to the modern Broadway musical, except governed by a strict observance of the Renaissance dictate that it would be unseemly for the main “dramatic” characters to express themselves in song, leaving only gods and supernumeraries to embellish what was otherwise essentially a straight play. With this in mind, we are better off thinking of Dido not as an opera but as a “court masque,” an exemplar of that unique blend of aural, visual, and intellectual spectacle that embodied the extravagantly self-reflexive ethos of the English court throughout the seventeenth century.
Dido’s vision of the courtly world, however, is an atypically dark one. The heroine, already preordained by Virgil for a tragic end, exists in a perpetual state of anguish, “with storms of care oppress’d,” while those around her—from courtiers to witches to sailors, and even her bombastic and impulsive lover, Aeneas—celebrate the events that will lead to her demise. Yet where the Virgilian Dido is merely collateral damage, an admittedly flawed woman caught in the gears of a larger epic machinery, the Carthaginian queen of Tate and Purcell’s redaction is more directly an object of our pity, the victim of a malicious plot by the Sorceress and her “Inchanteresses” that, we realize with astonishment, need not have turned out tragically at all, absent the startling gullibility of her anti-heroic suitor Aeneas. Tate’s genius is deftly to refocus our attention away from the Trojan champion and his heedless pursuit of glory, and to offer instead a humanizing portrait of Aeneas’s troubled hostess and inamorata, whose impossible dilemma is ultimately encapsulated in her famous dying lament. As the scope of the catastrophe engulfing Dido becomes apparent, so does the transcendent brilliance of Purcell’s musical response: following a stolidly detached choral pronouncement (“Great minds against themselves conspire”), the recitative “Thy hand, Belinda” pulls us downward into the pit of her desolation, only to give way to the dazzling transcendence of “When I am laid in earth,” in which the composer’s deployment of a somber low-tessitura string accompaniment against the queen’s plaintive cry, “Remember me—but ah! forget my fate,” propelled forward by the insistent descending tetrachord of the repeated ground bass line, elevates the climactic moment of the piece to the level of a full-blown lyric tragedy, an expression of operatic despair sufficient to rival anything in the grand theatrical concoctions of later centuries.
Such a phenomenon certainly helps to explain the enduring reputation of Dido and Aeneas—the last seventy-five years have seen the release of nearly fifty commercial recordings, and public performances are far too numerous to count—but it also provides an object lesson in how a temporally situated work can be appropriated, for good or ill, to the larger, more impersonal purposes of “timeless artistic expression.” Yet Dido is that rare work that readily bridges the still-persistent divide between “early music” and the broader world of “classical” concertgoing: it appeals to opera lovers of all stripes while at the same time retaining its position as a monument to the cultural heritage of the seventeenth century. The Boston Early Music Festival is justly esteemed for bringing mostly under-appreciated works of the Baroque era to the attention of audiences worldwide; however this by no means obviates the value of the present production, through which lovers of premodern musical drama have a welcome opportunity to savor the exceptional beauty and power of this work—a work that epitomizes the universal applicability of the extraordinary theatrical form that Boston audiences have long since come to know and love.
—Andrew R. Walkling