Thursday, February 25, 2010

Another Classical Aside: Dido and Aeneas...

I came across this picture the other day, which prompted me to write a post on the tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas.

The doomed love between Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the Trojan prince Aeneas, who was destined to leave Dido in order to found Rome, is an archetypal classical love story of boy putting duty to nation before his love, resulting in the girl meeting with a tragic end. It is a plot that has been used throughout literature, proving that underlying emotional dilemmas are an immutable part of humanity.

Dido was, according to classical sources, the founder and first Queen of Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia). She is best known from the account given by the Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid. The Aeneid was one of my favourite books at school (along with the plays of Aristophanes, and, Arrian's The Campaigns of Alexander).

Above: Aeneas and his Father and Son fleeing Troy (the sack of Troy setting the beginning of The Aeneid. For a free copy of the Dryden translation of Virgil's Latin text click here...

In some sources Dido is also known as Elissa, which is probably a Greek rendering of the Phoenician Elishat, meaning "Wanderer" and was perhaps the name under which Dido was most familiarly known in Carthage.

The sub-plot of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil's Aeneid, forms the basis of the opera Dido and Aeneas. It is an opera in the form of a prologue and three acts by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell to a libretto by Nahum Tate. The first known performance was in London in the spring of 1689. The story recounts the love story of Dido and Aeneas, and her despair at his abandonment. A monumental work in Baroque opera, it is remembered as one of Purcell's foremost theatrical works. Dido and Aeneas was Purcell's first (and only) all-sung opera and is among the earliest English operas.

Act 1

Dido's court

Above and Very top: Dido receiving Aeneas at 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 a second woman sing a duet to try to cheer up the queen. 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

A witch, plotting the destruction of Carthage and its queen, calls in some other witches and henchmen to help her carry-out her evil plans. She decides to send her "trusted elf", disguised as Mercury, (someone to whom Aeneas will pay heed) to tempt Aeneas to leave Dido and sail to Italy. This would leave Dido heart-broken, and she would surely die. The chorus join in with terrible laughter, and the witches decides to conjure up a storm to make Dido and her train leave the grove return 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 Aeneas 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 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, Aeneas is stopped by the witches' elf, who is disguised as Mercury. He pretends to be sent by Jove to tell Aeneas that he is to wait no longer in beginning his task of creating a new Troy on Latin soil. Aeneas consents to the wishes of what he believes are the gods, but is heart-broken that he will have to leave Dido. He then goes off-stage to prepare for his departure from Carthage.

Act 3

The harbor 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 pleased at how well their plan has worked, and the Sorceress sings a solo describing her further plans for the destruction of Aeneas "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 Aeneas speaks, and his words only serve to confirm her suspicions. She derides his reasons for leaving, and even when Aeneas says he will defy the gods and not leave Carthage, Dido rejects him for having once thought of leaving her. After Dido forces Aeneas 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", also known as "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."

Above and Below: Dido on her Pyre

Here is a clip of Jessye Norman singing Dido's lament. I'm not quite sure what she is wearing, or why she is standing in a kaleidescope (paradoxical given she is about to climb atop a funeral pyre and end it all) but she is fabulous all the same...


When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.
When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.
Remember me, remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.
Remember me, remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.

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