Bury Bach Choir sings Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

The only known performance of Dido and Aeneas during Purcell’s lifetime was at Chelsea, in a boarding school run by Josias Priest, a famous dancer and choreographer, sometime before December 1689.  It may have been written for a court performance and later arranged for schoolgirls. This would explain several discrepancies between the libretto printed for the Chelsea amateur production (‘perform’d by young gentlewomen’) and the earliest surviving score, which  includes a baritone Aeneas as well as tenor and bass chorus parts which could hardly have been performed by Priest’s young pupils.

The libretto was written by Nahum Tate, based on his five-act tragedy Brutus of Alba, or The Enchanted Lovers (1678), which he had originally called ‘Dido and Aeneas’, and various translations of the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. The libretto is highly condensed and elliptical; certain key events, such as the manner of Dido’s death, are unspecified, or discreetly glossed over – for example, the lovers’ night in the cave.

Allusions in the libretto offer hints of the occasion for which Dido and Aeneas may have been composed.  The prologue (for which the music is lost) seems to refer to the new political order after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the Act I chorus ‘When monarchs unite, how happy their state, They triumph at once oe’r their foes and their fate’ also appears to compliment the new king and queen.  On the other hand, the opera itself, in which the prince deserts his queen with tragic consequences, would have been offensive during any part of the reign of William and Mary!  In one of his poems, Tate alluded to James II as Aeneas, who is misled by the evil machinations of the Sorceress and her acolytes (representing Roman Catholicism, a common metaphor at the time) into abandoning Dido, who symbolises the British people.

Clare Presland
While Tate’s libretto has been criticised for extreme compression of the story and under-development of the character of Aeneas, the pace and concision of the drama, in which the chorus plays several different roles (courtiers, huntsmen, cupids, witches, sailors), together with the irregular lines (advocated by Dryden, no less, as ideal for opera) appealed to Purcell, whose flexible phrasing always captures the meaning of the words.  What distinguishes his opera is the quality of the music and the human scale of the tragedy it conveys, exemplified most famously by the wonderful ‘Dido’s lament’, which stands as one of the greatest operatic arias of any age.  It will be sung in this concert by Suffolk-born opera star Clare Presland.

The concert is at the Apex in Bury St Edmunds, on Saturday 15 June 2019, starting at 7.30pm.  Tickets, priced from £15, can be purchased through the choir's website www.burybachchoir.co.uk, by visiting the Apex Box Office, or by calling the Apex on 01284 758000.


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