- Tragédie lyrique in 3 acts
- Composer: Niccolò Piccinni
- Libretto: Jean-François Marmontel, after Virgil’s Æneid and Metastasio’s Didone abbandonata
- First performed: Fontainebleau, 16 November 1783; then at the Académie royale de musique (salle de la Porte-Saint-Martin), Paris, 1 December 1783.
Didon is generally considered Piccinni’s masterpiece. Louis XVI, no less, enjoyed it so much he heard it three times in a row at its premiere at Fontainebleau. It was equally successful in Paris: Piccinni was, for the first time, applauded and praised unreservedly; on the 12th performance, a wreath was thrown to the soprano; and the opera lasted well into the 19th century, performed 256 times until 1826. Piccinni’s score isn’t desperately memorable or imaginative, but the libretto is tighter and more theatrical than Les Troyens à Carthage.
Characters: DIDON, queen of Carthage (soprano); PHÉNICE, her confidante (soprano); ELISE, her sister (soprano); ÉNÉE (tenor); IARBE (bass-baritone); Iarbe’s CONFIDANT (bass-baritone); a GHOST (bass-baritone); priests of Pluto, people of Carthage, Trojan warriors, Didon’s court
Setting: Carthage, after the fall of Troy
The overture is rather inappropriately light-hearted, but contains a gentle oboe solo.
Act I: Didon’s palace. The Carthaginian queen is troubled: she swore to remain faithful to her late husband – but loves the Trojan prince Énée (Æneas). Last night, she dreamt her husband’s ghost appeared to her, sadder and more severe than she ever saw him, and accused her of faithlessness. She tries to banish her fears (Allegro agitato + Lento: “Vaines frayeurs”). The court prepares to go hunting – but Énée interrupts the festivities with the news that Iarbe (Iarbas), king of Numidia and Mauretania, is marching on Carthage. The Trojan promises to defend the queen (Allegro moderato: “Régnez en paix sur ce rivage”). Disguised as an ambassador, Iarbe states that he wants Dido’s hand and her throne – and will not suffer a Trojan in his place. Didon replies that the king has no claim on her, while if it comes to war, Énée will protect her (Allegro maestoso: “Ni l’amante, ni la reine”.) When the two men are alone, Iarbe reveals himself to Énée, and the two men quarrel (duo, allegro vivace: “Trop fier de sa faiblesse”). Iarbe is furious that a shipwrecked Asian turncoat should be her lover (Allegro vivace: “Ô Jupiter ! ô mon père!”). None of the arias nor the duet are exceptional.
Act II: A public square of Carthage, with the temple of Juno on one side. Énée loves Didon, but knows he must leave; the gods have commanded him to set sail for Italy (arias: “Plaignez au roi, plaignez un père”; Allegro vivace: “Non, je lui rends sa liberté”). While he hopes Didon’s sister Elise will have told the queen, she appears looking forward to happiness with Énée once he defeats Iarbe. Her aria “Ah! que je fus bien inspirée” (andante sostenuto e cantabile) is attractive; Clément notes that it justly appeared in collections of classic arias. Didon tells Énée she wants her defender to go into battle as her husband; the Trojan cannot bring himself to speak, and leaves. Iarbe warns Didon that Énée is planning to escape; she refuses to believe him, dismissing his tale as mere jealousy. Iarbe threatens to destroy the city and humble the queen (Maestoso: “Je veux les voir réduire en cendre”), and leaves to muster his forces. The scene that follows looks forward to grand opéra. Didon summons her court and people; Énée arrives with his Trojans. The queen offers the sceptre to her lover. In a big allegro chorus (“Au fils d’une grande déesse”), the Tyrians urge Énée to accept, reign over them, and triumph over Iarbe; the Trojans urge him to refuse, and to think only of his son; Didon wonders why the prince is so troubled. Énée tells Didon and her people he will not accept this rank before he has merited them. Dídon is worried: the altar is prepared; why this change that fills her with dread? She sends her people away. Once alone, Énée reveals to Didon that the gods have decreed another empire to him and his people; he must obey. Didon doesn’t take this well; she collapses in her sister’s arms (trio: “Tu sais si mon cœur est sensible”). The Moors advance, and Énée leaves to take command of the army in an almost dancelike allegro presto finale (“Aux armes!”).
Act III: The peristyle of Didon’s palace, overlooking the sea and port. The queen tells herself that Énée will stay faithful to her: betrayal is too vile for such a beautiful soul, and the gods will have pity on the lovers’ tears (Allegro agitato: “Hélas, pour nous il s’expose”). Clément thought this scene a masterpiece. An impressive chorus (“Victoire! ils sont défaits”) announces Énée’s return in triumph – but, Énée tells her, his victory means ruin for their love. He has slain the son of Jupiter; to avenge him, the god has ordered that the couple to separate. Énée tells her that he is reluctant to leave (Andante maestoso: “Vous le savez, Dieux que j’atteste”) but the queen is outraged (aria: “Ah! prends pitié de ma faiblesse”). She curses him, ending with the prophesy that an avenger (Hannibal) will bring war, swords, and fire to Italy. The ghost of his father Anchises appears to Énée, and orders him to obey the gods and set sail. A storm rages; the terrified courtiers wonder where to flee (“Les éléments”). Didon sees Énée and his fleet leaving; first ordering the Tyrians to attack, she then loses hope – the time has come to end her suffering. “Je veux mourir, je veux, pour déchirer son âme le rendre témoin de ma mort. Je veux qu’en s’éloignant de ce funeste bord le bûcher de Didon l’éclaire de sa flamme. Il sentira peut-être au moins quelques remords.” Didon orders an altar and pyre to be built (marche funèbre; chorus of priests of Pluto); she burns Énée’s weapons and spoils, then mounts the pyre and stabs herself. “Toi que j’ai tant aimé, qui m’as fait tant souffrir, hélas ! que n’avais-je à t’offrir cet empire éclatant où le destin t’appelle. Pardonne à ma douleur cruelle les vœux insensés que j’ai faits. Dieux, oubliez les à jamais.” The horrified Carthaginians swear eternal hate, fury, and war for the Italians.
The work deeply affected its composer. Weeping as Act III was performed for the writer Ginguené, Piccinni confessed: “That’s how I just spent 15 days. Even when I wasn’t composing, I cried while thinking of Didon. I kept saying to myself: ‘That poor woman!’”
Clément (1869) admired the gracious, tender melodies, and thought the accompaniments offered a pure and elegant harmony. Fétis thought there was so much love in the role of Didon, so much suavity in her cantilenas, that one could not praise too highly the author of such a fine work.
There is only one recording, a live performance from Piccinni’s hometown of Bari. The opera needs a better recording; this is sub-par: a provincial performance, by non-Francophones, few really adequate for the role, on non-HIP instruments. But it’s enough to suggest there’s a work of merit here, although certainly below the level of Gluck or Berlioz.
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869