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Dido and Aeneas

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Dido and Æneas is an opera by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell, from a libretto by Nahum Tate. The first known performance was at a girls' school in the spring of 1689 and hence is given catalogue number Z. 626. It comprises three acts and lasts about an hour.

It is based on a story from the fourth book of Virgil's Aeneid, of the legendary Queen of Carthage Dido and the Trojan refugee Æneas. When Æneas and his crew are shipwrecked in Carthage, he and the queen fall in love. However, Æneas must soon leave to found Rome. Dido cannot live without him and awaits death.

This work is somewhat problematic, since no score in Purcell's hand is extant, and the only seventeenth century source is a libretto, possibly from the original performance. The difficulty is that no later sources follow the act divisions of the libretto, and the music to the prologue is lost. Part of this stems from the practice of the time of using such entertainments to add spice to another piece, such as a play, breaking up the original work and only using parts of it, rather than putting it on as a complete work.( pg. iv) It is a monumental work in the Baroque opera, remembered as one of Purcell's (and perhaps England's) foremost operatic works. It may be considered Purcell's only true opera, as compared with his other musical dramatic works such as King Arthur and The Fairy-Queen, as well as the first English opera. It owes much to John Blow's Venus and Adonis, including structure and overall effect.


Originally based on Nahum Tate's own play Brutus of Alba, or The Enchanted Lovers (1678), the opera is likely, at least to some extent, allegorical. The prologue refers to the joy of a marriage between two monarchs, which could refer to the marriage between William and Mary after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In a poem of about 1686 Tate himself alluded to James II as Æneas, who is misled by the evil machinations of the Sorceress and her witches (representing Roman Catholicism, a common metaphor at the time) into abandoning Dido, who symbolizes the British people. The same symbolism may apply to the opera.

This explains the addition of the characters of the Sorceress and the witches, which do not appear in the original Aeneid. It would be noble, or at least acceptable, for Æneas to follow the decree of the Gods, but not so acceptable for him to be tricked by ill-meaning spirits.

Although the opera is a tragedy, there are numerous lighter scenes, such as when the First Sailor sings "Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore, and silence their mourning with vows of returning, though never intending to visit them more."


Role Voice type Premiere cast,
(Conductor: - )
Dido, (also known as Elissa) Queen of Carthage soprano
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid light soprano
Second Woman, Another Handmaiden mezzo-soprano or soprano
Æneas, Trojan Prince tenor
Sorceress mezzo-soprano or counter-tenor
First Witch/Enchantress soprano
Second Witch/Enchantress soprano
Spirit, in form of Mercury soprano or counter-tenor
First Sailor tenor
Chorus, SATB: all members at one point or another represent courtiers, witches, cupids, and sailors.


Act 1

Dido's court

The opera opens with Dido in her court with her attendants. Belinda is trying to cheer up Dido, but Dido is full of sorrow, saying 'Peace and I are strangers grown'. Belinda believes the source of this grief to be the Trojan Aeneas, and suggests that Carthage's troubles could be resolved by a marriage between the two. Dido and Belinda talk for a time, and then Belinda and the Second Woman have a duet. The court then again tries to raise Dido's spirits, followed by Aeneas entering the court. He is at first received coldly by Dido, but she eventually accepts his proposal of marriage.

Act 2

Scene 1: The cave of the Sorceress

She is plotting the destruction of Carthage and its queen, and calls in her companions to help her in her evil plans. She plans to send her "trusted elf" disguised as Mercury, someone that Aeneas will surely listen to, and tempt him to leave Dido and head back to Troy. This would leave Dido heart-broken, and she would surely die. The chorus join in with terrible laughter, and the Enchantresses decide to conjure up a storm to make Dido and her train leave the grove and head back to the palace. When the spell is prepared, the witches vanish in a thunderclap.

Scene 2: A grove during the middle of a hunt

Dido and Æneas are accompanied by their train. They stop at the grove to take in its beauty. A lot of action is going on, with attendants carrying goods from the hunt and a picnic possibly taking place, and Dido and Aeneas are together within the activity. This is all stopped when Dido hears a distant thunder, prompting Belinda to tell the servants to prepare for a return to shelter as soon as possible. As every other character leaves the stage, Æneas is stopped by the Sorceress's elf who is disguised as Mercury. This pretender Mercury brings the command of Jove that Æneas is to wait no longer in beginning his task of creating a new Troy on Latin soil. Æneas consents to the wishes of what he believes are the gods, but is not happy that he will have to leave Dido. He then goes off-stage to prepare to leave Carthage.

Act 3

The harbour at Carthage

Preparations are being made for the departure of the Trojan fleet. The sailors sing a song, which is followed shortly by the Sorceress and her companions' sudden appearance. The group is happy with how well their plan has worked, and the Sorceress sings a solo describing her further plans for the destruction of Æneas "on the ocean". All the characters begin to clear the stage after a dance in three sections, and then disperse.

The palace

Dido and Belinda enter, shocked at Aeneas' disappearance. Dido is distraught and Belinda comforts her. Suddenly Aeneas returns, but Dido is full of fear before Æneas speaks, and his words only serve to confirm her suspicions. She derides his reasons for leaving, and even when Æneas says he will defy the gods and not leave Carthage, Dido rejects him for having once thought of leaving her. After Dido forces Æneas to leave, she states that "Death must come when he is gone." The opera and Dido's life both slowly come to a conclusion, as the Queen of Carthage sings her last aria, "When I am laid in Earth", aka "Dido's Lament." The chorus and orchestra then conclude the opera once Dido is dead by ordering the "cupids to scatter roses on her tomb, soft and gentle as her heart. Keep here your watch, and never never never part."


The first of the arias to be published separately was "Ah, Belinda" in Orpheus Britannicus. The most famous aria of the work is Dido's lament, When I am laid in earth. Both arias are formed on a lamento ground bass. Dido's lament has been performed or recorded even by artists far from the typical operatic school such as Klaus Nomi (as "Death"), Ane Brun and Jeff Buckley. It has also been transcribed or used in many scores, including the soundtrack to HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (renamed Nixon's Walk). It is always played (by a military band) at the Cenotaph remembrance ceremony which takes place on the Sunday nearest to November 11th each year in London's Whitehall. The music is thought by some to be too simple for Purcell in 1689, but this may simply reflect that the intended performers were schoolchildren. The original instrumentation is not at all clear, but it certainly included a continuo part. In answer to this Imogen Holst and Benjamin Britten put together an edition of the opera with a realization by Britten. Now there are a number of editions with realizations, which makes the piece much more accessible for amateur performance.(, pg. vi) While the Prologue's music has been lost and has not been reconstructed, several realizations of the opera include a solution to the missing ritornello at the end of the second act. Known to have been part of the score, it is now performed as a dance taken from other, similar works by Purcell, or invented outright in the same vein, to keep the integrity and continuity of the performance.

Selected recordings

The first full recording cast (before 1936) was as follows:

  • Nancy Evans (Dido), Mary Hamlin (Belinda), Roy Henderson (Aeneas), Mary Jarred (Sorceress), Olive Dyer (Spirit), Dr Sydney Northcote (Sailor), Gladys Currie (Second woman), Gwen Catley and Gladys Currie (Witches), Charles Kennedy Scott's A Capella singers, Boyd Neel String Orchestra, Boris Ord (continuo), Clarence Raybould (conductor), Hubert J. Foss (Musical director). (Decca, X 101-107, 7x12" records, by subscription only for the Purcell Society).
  • Dame Janet Baker (Dido), Patricia Clark (Belinda), Raimund Herincx (Æneas), supporting soloists, St. Anthony Singers, English Chamber Orchestra, Anthony Lewis, conductor. Recorded 1961 and re-released on Decca in 2000.
  • Jessye Norman (Soprano - Dido), Marie Maclaughlin (Mezzo Soprano - Belinda), Patricia Kern (Soprano - Sorceress), Thomas Allen (Baritone - Aeneas), Derek Lee Ragin (Countertenor - Spirit). English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Raymond Leppard. Philips Catalog. 416299
  • Susan Graham (Dido), Ian Bostridge (Æneas), Camilla Tilling (Belinda), Felicity Palmer (Sorceress), David Daniels (Spirit), Cécile de Boever (Second Woman), Paul Agnew (A Sailor), Emmanuelle Haïm (conductor), European Voices, Le Concert d'Astrée. Virgin Veritas 45605.
  • Emma Kirkby (Dido), Judith Nelson (soprano), David Thomas (bass), Taverner Consort and Players conducted by Andrew Parrott, Chandos CHAN 8306.
  • Evelyn Tubb (Dido & Sorceress), Thomas Meglioranza (Æneas), Julia Matthews (Belinda), New Trinity Baroque conducted by Predrag Gosta, Edition Lilac 100806-2.
  • Kirsten Flagstad (with Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Belinda), Victoria de los Ángeles (with Belinda sung by Dame Heather Harper), Tatiana Troyanos, Josephine Veasey, Dame Janet Baker (in her second recording of the work, now with Sir Peter Pears as Æneas), D'Anna Fortunato (with Bruce Fithian as the Sorceress), Jessye Norman (opposite the Spirit of Derek Lee Ragin, in his first recording), Catherine Bott (with Julianne Baird as the Second Woman, conducted by Christopher Hogwood) and Nancy Maultsby (opposite the Belinda of Susannah Waters).

A film version was made in 1995, directed by Canadian Barbara Willis Sweete.

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