What kind of an “opera” is Dido and Aeneas? Chapter 5

As we saw in my previous chapter, when Dido and Aeneas was given at Priest’s school in 1689, it was called an opera, as Blow’s Venus and Adonis had also been when performed at Chelsea five years earlier. But the original title of masque (in English, mask) given to Blow’s work is more apposite by the definitions of the time. A mask was a court entertainment entirely set to music, with a prologue directed at the monarch, much dancing, some scenes of grotesquery (the “anti-mask”) and preferably some “noble” participation. Venus and Adonis conforms to this definition, the “noble participation” coming in the person of Mary Davies, one of Charles’s many theatrical mistresses, who sang Venus (and may have organised the whole thing), with their natural daughter, then 10 years old and known as Lady Mary Tudor, singing the role of Cupid.

If Venus is labelled a mask, so should Dido be – arguably with even more justification, as the “antimask” element (the witches) is much more developed, and the Prologue (for which no music has survived) is much closer to the conventional panegyric of the genre. There may even have been “noble” participation, as the roles of the two masks are identical in vocal characteristics – Venus a dramatic soprano like Dido, Adonis a low tenor as is Aeneas, and Cupid a kind of soubrette, as is Belinda. So in its casting too, Dido and Aeneas may have been inspired by Venus and Adonis. Perhaps Dido was a sequel to Venus, organised also by Mary Davies.

Neither of them, for 17th century England, are operas. For one thing, they are much too short – no doubt the reason that neither was ever heard by itself on the public stage (perhaps when they were done as school shows, the modesty of the circumstances permitted the use of the grand term “opera”). And they were through-composed. English opera of the time, as Dryden and others made clear, involved spoken dialogue, in the manner of The Magic Flute.

But Dido and Aeneas was at least heard in the public playhouse. In 1700, the Actor’s Theatre Company, which had split from the formerly United Company and were falling on hard times, were desperately looking for attractive music to counteract successful revivals in the other house of Purcell’s stage works, to the scores of which they no longer had access. Dido and Aeneas being far too short for an entire evening’s entertainment, the playwright Charles Gildon decided to include it as a series of interludes between the acts of his heavily rewritten version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Comic or musical interludes in a serious play were hardly a new idea, and had been much in vogue in London recently. Pretexts were found to introduce the musical moments (usually the entertainment or repose of one the characters) but the success of the whole concept depended on choosing interludes which reinforced the plotline of the play and gave insight into the characters. In the case of Dido, the “entertainments” are all given for the villain Angelo, who seeks to deflower the virtuous Isabella. After the Hunting scene is interrupted by the storm, Angelo compares it to the opportunity he has to possess Isabella: “And when, my Dido, I’ve possessed thy charms, I then will throw thee from my glutted arms, And think no more on all thy soothing Harms.” Later, Dido’s death is followed by a scene in which Isabella refuses to yield, even in exchange for her brother’s life. It seems very clear that in 1700 Dido, like Isabella, was considered virtuous, and Aeneas, like Angelo, a scoundrel and a cad, a reading that has inspired our own take on the story.

Thus transmogrified, Measure for Measure was successful, and revived in later years. That Purcell’s music for Dido was a big factor in its success is borne out by its use as interludes in other plays in 1704 and more revivals in 1706. This is very probably the moment that it was shorn of the music that it now missing – the whole of the Prologue (which had been transformed into a final celebration in 1700 and was afterwards replaced by “Scotch dances”) and, perhaps by mistake, the chorus after Aeneas’s soliloquy at the end of Act 2.

The only musical sources for Dido and Aeneas date from the second half of the 18th century, and seem to preserve its state in 1704, four removes from its creation at the court of Charles II. Given that, it is a miracle that we have as much as we do, although it is a shame to have lost the Prologue, which we have not tried to replace. Purcell’s mastery of setting English is so complete that his music is inextricably tied to its text, making it very difficult to adapt. We have however found music, largely from his early works, for the missing chorus (which I have transformed into a duet) and for several essential dances.

Dido and Aeneas has a way of being all things to all men. Our production tries something new in terms of characterisation, but insists on the old for the musical choices, and even the pronunciation. Enjoy !


Read Chapter 4 : The When and Why of Dido and Aeneas

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