Dido and Aeneas – Composed by Henry Purcell, based on a poem by Virgil
Dido and Aeneas was composed by Purcell for a girls’ boarding school in Chelsea which was run by Josias Priest, Purcell’s patron. It was to be performed by amateurs and consists of 3 short acts. Because of its dramatic intensity and the themes it deals with, as well as its music, it laid the foundations for English opera and is among the most popular of British lyrical works. It is thought to have first been performed in 1689 although this cannot be authenticated.
Dido and Aeneas is an opera based on a poem by Virgil and recounts the story of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas the Trojan hero; a tragic tale of love and loss.
Aeneas is Prince of Troy, whose city is destroyed by the Greek Army hidden in a Trojan Horse. He gathers together his men, his father and his son and sails away to discover a new city called Rome. The gods however, make his journey treacherous. Juno, the Queen of Heaven, hates Aeneas and does not want him to succeed so commands Aeolus, King of the Winds, to blow up a storm. Neptune, King of the Waters, decides he’s in charge and calms the waters but not before the fleet of ships is damaged, lost or shipwrecked. Aeneas is shipwrecked in Libya and he and his men are pleased to be on solid ground.
Looking down on him is his mother, Venus. She complains to Jupiter, Lord of the Skies, about the havoc caused by Juno to her son Aeneas whose destiny is to find Rome. Jupiter decides to send Aeneas to Carthage and Dido, Queen of Carthage. Venus is pleased with this as she knows that her son will fall for Dido and this would not please Juno.
Aeneas climbs a cliff to see where they have landed and comes upon a beautiful huntress. Without realising it Aeneas is talking to his mother Venus who protects him with an invisible cloud so that he can move safely to Carthage and seek out Dido. As he enters Carthage he comes upon a crowd of men who he realises are the men from his fleet who have been washed up there. Venus removes his invisible cloud and he is greeted by his men who call him Warlike Aeneas, Prince of Troy. Whilst this is happening Queen Dido has appeared and decides to hold a banquet in his honour. Aeneas is in awe of her beauty. She clothes Aeneas in robes befitting his status and asks him how he came to be in Carthage.
Aeneas tells her how Achilles, a Greek, had killed Hector, a Trojan and how Paris had fired a poison arrow into Achilles heel. The Greeks then fled but left behind a wooden Horse full of men who invaded Troy and forced him to flee. Aeneas flees with his sword, his father and his son and makes his way with his fleet towards Rome. Dido cries with pity when she hears his story.
Venus then willed Cupid to be an exact likeness to Aeneas’s
son Ascansius, to sit with Dido and comfort her, all the while working love magic and making Dido fall for Aeneas. Dido and her sister Anna agree he is special and Venus is pleased with the way things are going. However, Juno is already plotting and suggests to Venus that Aeneas and Dido are a good match and he would make a good King and build Carthage to be a great city. Venus agrees with this thinking that Juno is now on side.
Whilst out hunting a storm develops and Aeneas and Dido shelter in a cave. Cupid fires his arrows and Dido and Aeneas fall in love. Aeneas pledges on his sword that he will never love another but Dido; his destiny to go to Rome is forgotten. All the while Aeneas’ men are preparing their ships for the voyage to Rome and talking about how Aeneas has had his head turned by Dido. Jupiter, the father of the Skies, sends Mercury to remind Aeneas of his destiny to find Rome.
The next day Aeneas inspects his fleet ready to sail. His captain persuades Aeneas not to be put off by Dido’s tears and to leave without saying goodbye. Aeneas refuses to do this and bids farewell to Dido who is very unhappy that he is leaving. Aeneas explains his destiny is to discover Rome and offers to leave his sword to remember him by. Dido, distraught by this, tells him to go.
Dido asks her sister Anna to instruct the priests to build a fire to make a sacrifice whilst praying to the Neptune and Juno to either calm the waters to prevent him sailing, or blow up a storm to shipwreck him once again. Dido watches the ship sail away and using the sword Aeneas left kills herself and is burnt on the fire which Aeneas can see from the sea.
See Destinations to see where this opera is on this year