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Dido and Aeneas: Programme Notes

The earliest source material we have for Dido and Aeneas dates from 1689. It is a libretto, printed with the occasion of a performance given in a boarding establishment for young ladies in Chelsea run by Mr Josias Priest. No original manuscript survives in the hand of Henry Purcell. In fact, the first surviving music source - known as the Tenbury manuscript - is incomplete and dates around seventy years after the opera was composed.

This scantiness of evidence had lead scholars to believe for a long time that 1689 was actually the date of composition of Dido. However, the discovery in 1989 that Blow’s Venus and Adonis (1683) - the model of Dido in many respects - had been revived by Priest in 1684 opened the possibility that Dido, as Blow’s opera, was in fact originally conceived as a short entertainment for the court, and later revived in Chelsea’s school. The relation between Venus and Adonis and Dido and Aeneas is more than coincidental; not only these works are formally alike but they share a common thematic and setting, a subtle balance between comedy and tragedy and, a predominant use of French music.

The opera is divided in three acts and six scenes of equal proportions. The action progresses in expressive arioso passages while choruses and arias are reflections on the storyline. In general terms, the story moves from the optimism of Act I to the final tragedy; comic scenes are counterbalanced with the tragedy surrounding Dido, who will only find relief in death. The Sorceress, leader of the witches, is the true malign force behind the story; Aeneas, on the other hand, never has a chance to decide on his own destiny, becoming a puppet in the hands of the gods.

Dido and Aeneas is a very fine example of Purcell’s mastery in word setting and word painting, and shows a refined sensitivity for drama. Purcell underscores the progression towards the final tragedy by using a ground bass at three key moments in the opera: Dido’s opening aria "Ah, Belinda" already anticipates the final Lament and the Second Woman, right at the heart of the opera, tells the story of Actaeon, who was torn into pieces by his own hounds after Artemis turned him into a stag. In its literal sense, the word ‘ground’ is suggestive of earth and, thus, a poignant symbol of death.


© Miguel Esteban 2005





Updated 9 Jun 2005
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