I really did watch this opera in my pyjamas, when I had to take a day off work sick a couple of weeks ago. The version I watched was a 1995 production by the BBC, which you can view here. Being a BBC production it was basically filmed as a musical movie rather than recorded from the stage, and with all the resources of the BBC at their disposal the set and costume designers appear to have delighted in mashing up the styles of ancient Carthage and Restoration England, with a healthy dose of pyromania just for kicks. The end result may not be exactly what Purcell had in mind (at least, I’m guessing he probably didn’t intend for his opera to include nudity and prostitutes), but it was certainly visually interesting.
This is one of the earliest English operas, and the earliest that is still widely known and performed today. It was written in 1689, just a few decades after Monteverdi basically invented ‘opera’ in a recognisably modern sense in Italy. It’s widely believed that Henry Purcell (1659-1695) composed it at the request of Josias Priest for performance by his students at his girls’ school in Chelsea, and the character list seems to give weight to this. At a time when the idea of women on the stage was still a recent innovation in England (a Mrs. Edward Coleman blazed the way in 1658 when she appeared in the first known English opera, The Siege of Rhodes), three of the four main characters – Dido, Belinda, and the Chief Witch – are all female, as are three of the four secondary characters – a female servant and two more witches. Only Aeneas and the spirit the Chief Witch conjures in the guise of the god Mercury are played by males – and, in the BBC version at least, the role of Mercury is sung by a countertenor, which sounds an awful lot like a contralto.
Added to this, every scene includes an omnipresent chorus. You can stuff a lot of people into a chorus, which is useful when every girl (and her fee-paying parents) expects to get some stage-time. There are servants in the palace, a coven of witches in the Chief Witch’s cave, servants with Dido and Aeneas when they go hunting, sailors (and, in the BBC version, prostitutes) on the docks as Aeneas prepares to set sail, and servants again as the forsaken Dido kills herself.
And kill herself she does, because this is a tragedy, and thus death is mandatory. The basic plot is very simple: the libretto was written by Nahum Tate, the poet laureate, who apparently took a lot of liberties with Virgil. Aeneas, a Trojan prince, has been driven ashore at Carthage by a storm and taken in by Queen Dido. The pair have promptly fallen in love, with Dido’s maid, Belinda, matchmaking shamelessly, and at Belinda’s prompting they declare their feelings. Meanwhile the Chief Witch who, along with the other witches, lives to cause mayhem, decides it’d be a lot of fun to convince Aeneas to abandon Dido and sail to Italy, then call up a storm to drown him en route, so she conjures up a familiar spirit, which will appear to Aeneas in the guise of Mercury, messenger of the gods, and order him to leave.
The next morning, Dido and Aeneas celebrate their love with a trip to the forest. Dido takes a bath while Aeneas goes hunting (an aside for the guys: if you’re looking for a romantic gift for your lady-friend, a severed boar’s head is not the way to go), then it starts to rain. Everyone runs back to the palace except Aeneas, who is detained by ‘Mercury’ and, obedient to the apparent will of the gods, agrees to sail that very night, even though it will break both his own heart and Dido’s.
So, while the sailors are roused out of the brothels and make ready for departure, he goes to see Dido, who is somewhat less than impressed to discover she’s been demoted from ‘love of his life’ to ‘one night stand’. She begs him to stay but, when he agrees, changes her mind and orders him to go. He does, and she sings the brief but famous aria ‘when I am laid in earth’ before dying and, in the BBC version at least, being burned on a rather spectacular funeral pyre.
At just under an hour it’s a nice, short opera, but the operatic singing style is a bit much for me, so even though it was in English I still looked up the words and kept them to hand. I knew how it ends, so it was hard to get too emotionally invested, but I really enjoyed watching this, and think the BBC did a good job of adapting it – although the comments on YouTube are divided between ‘loved it’ and ‘ruined it.’ If you get the chance, check it out for yourself.