Dido and Æneas is Purcell's best loved and most frequently performed work today, it is also England's oldest full opera. In this production, the story based on Virgil's Æneid breathes new life thanks to the movements on stage and the settings.
Dido, Queen of Carthage, is in love with Æneas, who has sought refuge at her court following the burning of Troy at the end of the Trojan War. Out of loyalty to her dead husband and her country, she is unwilling to declare her love. Her maid Belinda urges her to tell Æneas her feelings and to be happy again in the aria "Shake the cloud from off your brow." When Æneas arrives and expresses his love for Dido, the queen gives way and admits that she loves him. Belinda leads the chorus in a celebration of the couple's betrothal.
But the Sorceress gathers all the evil creatures and the witches to draw up a plan to destruct the burgeoning love. One of the Sorceress's minion will go to Æneas disguised as Mercury in order to remind him of his duty and to tell him that he must leave the queen to found a new city in Italy. As the royal couple take a walk, a storm bursts and separates the two lovers. Æneas is visited by the counterfeit messenger of the gods and is told to leave Carthage. Being torn between his love and his duty, he announces to Dido that he must leave her. When she rejects him, Æneas decides to stay with her but it is too late and Dido dismisses him. She prepares for her own death, turning to Belinda again, begging her to remember her but to forget her tragic fate in the lament "When I am laid in earth."
Scottish choreographer Wayne McGregor's production of Dido and Æneas is a combination of ballet and opera, which reminds us of the original form of this work. The opera was written for Josiah Priest, a dance master who ran the Chelsea Boarding School for girls in London, where the premiere took place in 1689, with the residents executing the dance movements. In each instrumental intermezzo, the choreography emphasize the emotions of the characters and illustrate the story. Dancers also become part of the chorus at some points, blending movements with voices and instruments.
Photo: Bill Cooper
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