Henry Purcell's (1659-1695) opera "Dido and Aeneas" tells, in approximately one hour, of the frustrated passion of Dido, queen of Carthage, for the Trojan hero Aeneas, whose destiny it is to found Rome. The opera is based upon Virgil's Aeneid with a highly compressed libretto by Nahum Tate. Purcell's opera includes three parts for women and only one, Aeneas, for a male. The brief opera is in three Acts. According to "The New Grove Book of Operas", Purcell based his work on an earlier English opera, "Venus and Adonis" by John Blow. With its heavy emphasis on dance and chorus, "Dido and Aeneas" also draws heavily on French baroque opera.
This reissue of a 1961 recording of a young Janet Baker in the role of Dido is an outstanding way to get to know Purcell's only opera. Baker performed "Dido and Aeneas" many times during her career. Her voice is glowing and rich. She sings with force of Dido's initially repressed love and her soon-to-be dashed love. Interestingly, Dame Baker's most famous role was another Dido -- in Berlioz' lengthy opera, "The Trojans". Anthony Lewis conducts the English Chamber Orchestra with a supporting cast of Patricia Clark as Dido's confidante Belinda, Raimund Herincx as Aeneas and Monica Sinclair as a snarling Sorceress. I greatly enjoyed the cello obligato which permeates this opera.
For all its brevity, the opera encompasses a wide variety of emotion and scenes. The opera makes great use of the chorus. In general, after an aria by one of the principals, the chorus comments extensively, much in the manner of a Greek tragedy. Sometimes the chorus repeats the music of the soloist, but at other times it takes themes of its own. In "Dido and Aeneas" the chorus appears in scenes involving the court at Carthage, as huntsmen, witches, and sailors. It also appears at the close of the opera, following the death of Dido, in elegaic music of comfort.
In addition to his use of the chorus, Purcell uses the dance as a key element of his story. In "Dido and Aeneas", there are dance scenes displaying the love of Dido, a dance of the furies, who plot to destroy her happiness, an erotic dance for Aeneas, performed by Dido's entourage, a sailors' hornpipe, and a witches' dance in which the sorceress and her compatriots celebrate their destruction of the couple.
In the concluding scene of the opera, Janet Baker powerfully sings Dido's
sad and stark lament for the loss of Aeneas and for her impending death accompanied to a dirge-like theme in the orchestra. This is music of great tragedy.
This CD includes a complete libretto and good program notes. It is an wonderful way to experience an early operatic masterpiece.