112. Dido and Aeneas (Purcell)

Composer: Henry Purcell
Libretto: Nahum Tate, after Virgil’s Aeneid
First performed: 1680s, after Blow’s Venus and Adonis

Dido and Aeneas is probably the best opera since Monteverdi.

Purcell – “the English Orpheus” – and Lully were contemporaries. You can hear the Franco-Italian’s influence on the overture (slow-fast-slow in the French style), in the dances, the accompanied recitative, and the use of cords to support the melody.

Dido and Aeneas, though, LIVES in a way none of Lully’s does.

It’s human and direct; it deals with people, rather than courtly puppets posing for platitudes. Aeneas’ torment at leaving Dido, their parting quarrel, and her death by grief all ring true.

It’s compact; Purcell packs more musical variety and imagination into his 50-odd minutes than Lully does in three hours. Dido’s Lament “When I am laid in earth” is, of course, immortal, but there’s more to the work than a single aria. There’s a sinister, dissonant coven of witches; hunters; a storm; a chorus of sailors; and a dirge – all handled with remarkable freshness.

Nor is Dido a tribute to an absolutist monarch. It may indeed have been first performed before the king; while the earliest known performance was at a girls’ boarding school in Chelsea (1689), scholars think it was written for the court of Charles II or James II. Purcell, though, isn’t shackled by the conventions of tragédie lyrique, or the need to toady.

It’s also the only regularly performed British opera until Trial by Jury, and Purcell is the only major British [opera] composer until Sullivan.

(Handel, of course, was German; so was Mendelssohn, the Victorians’ favourite composer. Arne, Wallace, and Balfé are minor figures. And, yes, we will listen to Arne’s Artaxerxes. Quiet up the back, there!)

“The English,” the Rev. H.R. Haweis announced in 1871, “are not a Musical People.” This is unfair; while the Victorians thought that music could be immoral, they certainly enjoyed it. The English, though, are unquestionably a verbal (theatrical, literary) people.

And Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate (notorious for giving King Lear a happy ending) are English, heirs to the world’s greatest theatrical tradition.

France, on the other hand, is one of the great musical nations – but its theatre – certainly in Lully and Purcell’s time – is decidedly odd, misguided even.

The 17th century was the age of Racine, whose neoclassical tragedies were written to a strict formula:

  • The play strictly observes the Aristotelian unities: one setting, one day
  • Tragedy and comedy are strictly separated
  • The characters are royal
  • Avoids everyday language (Racine only uses some 600 words!)
  • Almost no action on-stage

The result: impoverished, constrained, constipated, artificially limited, rule-bound theatre where actors recited alexandrines full of abstractions, but couldn’t say “handkerchief” or “dog” or “night”, and which was lifeless because it bore little resemblance to life.

(This sad state of affairs continued until 1830, when Hugo’s Hernani scandalised the Classicists, and caused a riot.)

The English, on the other hand, had Shakespeare.
(And Marlowe, Middleton, Massinger, Jonson, Webster, Ford, and Wycherley.)

With such a strong stage tradition, opera never quite took off in England the way it did abroad. True, there were semi-operas and melodramas – but the English never needed opera in the way the French did.

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