Dido & Æneas, Opera by H. Purcell
Dido & Æneas was one of the earliest examples of Baroque opera and arguably the finest stage work by British composer Henry Purcell. The libretto, inspired by Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, was the work of Nahum Tate and tells the story of the love between the Queen of Carthage and the mythological Greek hero. The opera’s debut is shrouded in mystery, but many believe it took place on 11 April 1689 at Josias Priest’s boarding school for girls. Since then, it has earned international recognition as one of the genre’s earliest landmarks. Baroque Opera House revives the Purcell classic in the fitting atmosphere of the Scuola Grande dei Carmini in Venice, one of the best-preserved buildings from that period. The singers are accompanied by Baroque-era chamber orchestra to make the experience even more authentic.
Most classical music aficionados do not necessarily associate Baroque with the opera genre. Nevertheless, that most fruitful artistic period produced quite a few memorable stage works, known for their musical grandeur and epic storylines. Dido & Æneas is no exception. It focuses the melodramatic action on the two main characters’ tumultuous love affair, and it is widely believed that librettist Nahum Tate meant for the opera to be an allegory for monarchical love relations at the time. Various scholars have identified King William III and Queen Mary II, England’s joint monarchs in the late 17th century, as the true subjects of the story. Others suspect a deeper metaphorical connection and suggest the on-stage Æneas is King James II and Dido – an allegory for the British Empire he brought into a series of crises during his reign.
Whatever its historical roots, Dido & Æneas bears the seal of Henry Purcell’s compositional gift. The score alternates between emotion-laden and engaging passages and more light-hearted, boorish choruses. The typical musical structures of the time cannot constrain the composer’s creativity. At the beautifully frescoed Chapter Hall of Scuola Grande dei Carmini in Venice, the classic Baroque opera comes to life in a setting that matches its grandiosity.