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Dido and Aeneas

Side profile of Joyce DiDonato with her hands clasped and raised upwards

Maxim Emelyanychev leads Il Pomo d’Oro and a stellar cast in two Baroque tragedies – Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Carissimi’s Jephte – that share tales of love and sacrifice, searingly brought to life with their masterly music.

Giacomo Carissimi (1605–74) was one of the most respected composers of the 17th century, but today his music is relatively rarely performed. From the age of 24 until the end of his life he worked as director of music at the German College in Rome, an influential and well-resourced training centre for Jesuit priests, and it was in this position that he became the most important early composer of oratorios – narrative dramatic works on sacred subjects intended for performance in church. Along with his large output of Italian secular cantatas, these became widely circulated abroad, including in England; Purcell certainly knew and admired Carissimi’s music. 

The purpose of an oratorio, very much in line with Jesuit thinking, was to bring Bible stories to life, and they could therefore be sometimes quite operatic in flavour. In Historia di Jephte, composed around 1650, the Old Testament story of the Israelite commander who, having sworn to God that in return for victory in battle he will sacrifice the first person he meets on his return home, only to find that person is his own daughter, is presented by a narrator (a part sometimes sung by more than one voice) and a mixture of solo voices and ensembles who enact dialogue or comment on the action. That the oratorio is in Latin rather than Italian suggests it was one of the several works Carissimi composed for the connoisseur audience at the Oratory of the Most Holy Crucifix in Rome, using a musical language derived from Monteverdi in which solo declamation is mixed with madrigal-like writing for chorus that draws great expressive potency from a telling use of dissonance. Both reach searing apogees in the Daughter’s lament and the final chorus ‘Plorate filii Israel’ – then as now the composer’s single most celebrated passage of music. 

Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell (1659–95) is his most famous work. Familiar to audiences long before the rehabilitation in recent decades of Monteverdi and Handel, it is also the best-known opera to have been composed before Mozart. And for good measure it is probably the world’s favourite opera in English. Yet in many ways it is an enigma. 

For a long time it was accepted that the premiere took place in 1689 at a girls’ boarding school in Chelsea, and that this essentially amateur production, performed by teenagers, was the only one in Purcell’s lifetime. This could account for the work’s brevity, its small role for Aeneas, and possibly many aspects of the treatment of the story as well. But in recent decades the possibility has been mooted that Dido is older than that and may have been performed privately at the court of Charles II in the early 1680s, in which case the version we know today could well be an adaptation of a lost original. 

Whatever the difficulties of establishing the opera’s provenance, it is far easier to determine where it comes from in stylistic terms. For one thing, even though the favoured form of musical drama in England at the end of the 17th century mixed singing with spoken dialogue (exemplified by Purcell’s ‘semi-operas’ King Arthur and The Fairy Queen), the all-sung Dido and Aeneas was not the only work of its type at this time. In the early 1680s Venus and Adonis, a through-composed masque by Purcell’s teacher John Blow, had been performed before the court, and the parallels between it and Dido are striking. And in 1685 Albion and Albanius, an opera by Louis Grabu, was performed in London, introducing English audiences to the musical manners of French tragic opera which, with its flexible and expressive mode of vocal declamation, cannot have failed to make an impression on a composer as sensitive to word-setting as Purcell.

The story, adapted and much streamlined from Virgil’s Aeneid, tells of the love between the Trojan hero Aeneas and the recently widowed Carthaginian queen Dido, and of her subsequent suicide after he is tricked into leaving to fulfil his destiny as founder of Rome. Although it has been criticised for the mediocre quality of its verse, its structure is clear and concise, but of course it is Purcell’s music that gives the work its true dignity. The final scene – from Dido’s stricken recitative (‘Thy hand Belinda’), through the famous lament spun memorably over a resigned, repeatedly falling bassline, to the final heartbroken chorus – is distinguished by music whose power to move never fails.

Aeneas is a sketchy figure in comparison to Dido, but his chastened anticipation of the queen’s reaction to his departure, and his subsequent shamefaced appearance before her, are among the most theatrically effective passages in the opera. Yet Dido and Aeneas would not enjoy the popularity it does if it did not also appeal in its tunefulness, evocative power and harmonic richness. Short it may be, but it encompasses enough – courtly rejoicing, rumbustious hornpipes, humorously grotesque witches – to make it one of the most tightly packed hours of opera ever composed.

© Lindsay Kemp

Programme and performers

Giacomo Carissimi Jephte

Henry Purcell Dido and Aeneas

Il Pomo d’Oro
Maxim Emelyanychev harpsichord and conductor
Andrew Staples Jephte and Aeneas
Carlotta Colombo Figlia and Second Woman
Joyce DiDonato Dido
Fatma Said Belinda
Beth Taylor Sorceress
Hugh Cutting Spirit
Massimo Altieri Sailor
Alena Dantcheva First Enchantress
Anna Piroli Second Enchantress
Il Pomo d’Oro Choir
Singers from Il Pomo d’Oro Choir Jephte small roles


Artist biographies

Audience in the hall

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