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Purcell’s evergreen chamber opera Dido and Aeneas gains a refreshing new recording from the Armonico Consort and an astounding array of young soloists.
Once the Monarchy had been restored, the relative freedom of theatrical performances in London gradually returned. When Charles II came to the throne in 1661, Henry Purcell was two years old, having been born in Old Pye Street, just over half a mile from where the King’s father had been beheaded. Purcell’s own father was to die when the boy was four, and Henry was placed in the care of his uncle, a noted musician, who nurtured the inclinations of Henry and his two brothers, ensuring they each received a thorough musical training—Henry as a Chapel Royal chorister. It is sometimes claimed that Henry, the most gifted of the three, was already composing at the age of nine, although the first extant piece definitely ascribable to him is an ode for Charles II’s birthday, written in 1670.
As a trained singer from childhood, in daily contact with vocal and instrumental music, Purcell’s predilection for the voice, and for word-setting, came naturally to him. His gifts were such that, when his voice broke and he was obliged to leave the Chapel choir, a musical career was a natural choice. Although Purcell composed instrumental music alongside keyboard works and music for strings, it was only to be expected that he was attracted more by the growing fashion for theatrical drama with its significant musical content of arias, choruses and dances. Not that English opera had become as thriving a genre in the closing decades of the 17th century as it had in Italy, but if drama with music was to be heard anywhere in England, it was in the capital, where, as a Londoner born and bred, Purcell’s reputation grew considerably, especially following what is known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which saw King William III and his wife Queen Mary crowned as joint British monarchs.
Purcell was then at the height of his powers, and following the example set by his former teacher John Blow’s opera Venus and Adonis (in reality, the first genuine English opera) in 1683, it was only a matter of time before Purcell produced his first great operatic work, Dido and Aeneas, six years later, itself indebted in no small measure to Venus and Adonis, which had been performed before King Charles II prior to its revival at ‘Mr Josias Priest’s Boarding-School at Chelsey, By Young Gentlewomen.’
It may seem strange to us today to realise that Dido and Aeneas was also first produced at that self-same school, rather than in a theatre, but the school in question was no modern-style educational establishment. It was, as we have seen, a boarding-school for ‘young gentlewomen’, situated in Chelsea (then ‘Little Chelsey’), founded and run by Josias Priest, whose theatrical credentials were of the highest order and whose fame was widespread since he first appeared on the London stage prior to 1670. Priest was to live into his 90th year, dying in 1735. In Restoration theatrical productions, dance had become a regular and expected part of the evening’s entertainment, and being able to dance was considered a necessary accomplishment in the social aspirations of young educated ladies.
We should not therefore be surprised by the (originally) seventeen dances in Dido and Aeneas—including those in the Prologue, for which music has not survived—for, apart from being fashionable, they would have afforded the young ladies of Priest’s establishment with an ideal opportunity to display their talents and to demonstrate the school’s standards. We know also that the staging of the opera was exceptionally detailed; the scenery was elaborate, and possibly ostentatious, and the extraordinarily dramatic impact of the work within its relatively short playing time (one-hour) must have made a remarkable impression.
But such impressions as the work conveyed in Chelsea did not lead to a flowering of opera in England, although Priest and Purcell collaborated on a number of further operas: Dioclesian, King Arthur and The Fairy Queen in successive years (1690-92). But the combination of King William’s indifference to music, the death of his music-loving wife Mary in 1694 (which drew from Purcell one of his greatest works, known as the Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary), and Purcell’s own premature demise in November 1695 at the age of 36, caused opera in England not to develop as it did on the Continent. It was not until Handel’s arrival in London, 17 years after the death of Purcell, that the genre began to be established as fashionable entertainment.
The fate of Dido and Aeneas did not wholly die with Purcell’s death: the opera was first produced in London on the theatrical stage in February 1700, although not perhaps in a manner of which either Purcell or his librettist, Nahum Tate, would have approved, being apparently split into various interludes in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. How this was achieved is perhaps best left to the imagination, but what cannot be denied is the continuing power of Purcell’s music in the years following his death. Around two centuries were to pass before, in the 1890s, Dido and Aeneas was successfully revived, gradually being accepted and taking its rightful place as the first great operatic masterpiece by a British composer.
The essence of what makes Dido and Aeneas a great operatic masterpiece is that the individual characters within the story, which in turn Tate adapted and condensed from Virgil, are recognisably human, and exist in human situations—not solely ‘placed’ in locale or historical accuracy—with which the intelligent listener and observer can identify. To take one example, and not from the main protagonists who are identified in the opera’s title, the part of Belinda, Dido’s confidant, has an almost Shakespearean depth and humanity—she is not a naive or simple soul but one who sees the inherent affection and humanity of the love between Dido and Aeneas and seeks at all times to ensure their relationship is as trouble-free and as destined (as she sees it) to be fulfilled as it should.
This is a significant dramatic development in operatic characterisation, one for which Tate must take great credit (indeed, rather more than he is often given), but the finest dramatist in the world cannot, by himself, make a great opera: in the case of Dido and Aeneas we have a great composer whose experience in dramatic staged music, in his profound understanding of the qualities of the human voice, and his experience in writing for strings were exceptional in English music at this time (a very small ‘orchestra’ indicates the intimacy of the story itself, the interplay of the main characters, as well as throwing the weight of the musical argument wholly on the singers rather than being intermittently dependent upon any incidental instrumental colouration; it also makes the opera relatively inexpensive to mount within a suitably-sized room or hall). Such a combination of practicalities adds greatly to the appeal of the work and, once more, focuses attention on Purcell’s masterly setting of Tate’s libretto: the most famous part of the opera, Dido’s final lament, is set to a chaconne-like ground bass which concentrates the depth of her emotion. Purcell begins the aria in a totally gripping mood of restrained pathos (a chromatic descent), his musical equivalent of the dramaturgy being so simple yet so profound in its impact, the more so as it does not proceed to an outpouring of sentimental grief—the more moving for revealing, at this climactic moment, Dido’s inherent restraint. It is this restraint which has coloured her relationship with Aeneas—and which Belinda is keen to see relaxed to enable the relationship, from Dido’s standpoint, to become fulfilled. There can be little doubt that it was the character of Dido that exerted the creators’ imagination more than Aeneas—making the opera ideal for performance at a theatrical ‘boarding-school for young gentlewomen’.
But Dido and Aeneas is not some kind of tragic scene writ over an hour: the colouration and setting of locale—the background against which the tragedy is played out—add depths of verisimilitude which transcend and open out the situation: ‘placing it’, as it were, in a deeper human context. So the dances, and the Sailors’ music, and the elements of ‘other-worldliness’ of the observing spirits and Sorceress act as the staged personification of us, observers to the human drama. There is also a subtle reference to contemporary events: the first chorus: ‘When monarchs unite, how happy their state,’ was—in 1689—surely a direct reference to the accession to the throne of the joint British monarchs William and Mary the previous year. How much is therefore contained within this hour-long opera!
Robert Matthew-Walker © 2015