Good Report About Dido And Aeneas Opera Report

Type of paper: Report

Topic: Music, Song, Aeneas, Theater, Opera, Choir, Internet, New York

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/11/09

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Dido and Aeneas, an opera with music composed by Henry Purcell and libretto by Nahum Tate, is one of the best known operatic works of the Baroque era. But, like most famous works of the period, it lost favour quite soon after its completion – there is only one recorded performance of the piece during Purcell’s lifetime, after which it remained almost completely unknown until the early twentieth century. As with most operatic works of the time, it is scored for a standard Baroque orchestra, nine soloists and an SATB choir.
In the performance which was analyzed one curious feature was the stage presence of the choir. Had the performance been a live recording, the choir would most certainly have had to be much more ‘grounded’ and less varied. Given that this was not a requirement, the stage presence of the choir could be altered to suit the scenes in which they were present and, more importantly, to the soloists they were supporting or supplementing.
In Dido and Aeneas, the choir, at various points, represents courtiers, sailors, cupids, and witches. As operatic convention for opera seria dictate, the SATB choir is to be used to create the effect of ‘grandness’, not for the accuracy of the scene (a feature which is more at home in post-Gluckian opera, especially in Romantic composers such as Wager). As such, regardless of whether they represent sailors or witches (which are traditionally supposed to be female, i.e., altos and above) the entire choir is to sing.
This is not to say that dramatic effect or thrust is lost. In the first act, as Aeneas enters the court, he is taken aback by Dido’s coldness and was ready to Carthage as a lost cause and leave to find friendlier patrons, when Belinda enters singing ‘Pursue thy conquest, Love!’ a refrain which is taken up by the choir. In the given performance, when Belinda sang the piece, almost da capo (having only a ground base accompaniment), she bent close to Aeneas and, given the sparse instrumentation and the camera focus on Belinda and Aeneas, created the effect of a whisper. Another impressive fact about this piece was the crafting of the music around the words. The five sharp beats – one for each syllable in ‘Pursue thy conquest’, followed by the quick rising arpeggio for the word ‘love’ creates an atmosphere of hopeful urgency.
This refrain is taken up by the chorus and sung with the stings doubling the choir. The manner in which this is handled clearly shows that the choir was not only highlighting the sentiment which Belinda had just expressed but also ‘owning’ it and making it the sentiments of the courtiers. With this encouragement, Aeneas proposes to Dido who, letting go of her veil of coldness, accepts and the couple dip their fingers in holy water to announce that they are now engaged.
With this, the first act is completed and the second act begins in the witches’ lair. The witches are summoned using a recitative immediately after the prologue. At this point, another interesting point about Purcell’s opera is brought up – the recitatives. In the more ‘mainstream’ operas such as the Mozart-da Ponte operas or the early Romantic operas, the recitative is quite clearly distinguished from the ensemble pieces and arias. This is done by reducing the accompaniment to nothing more than a ground bass (if any at all – many of the recitative’s in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, for instance, are left without any musical instructions at all) and restricting the music to no more than beats played out in a very small range of pitches.
As already seen, Belinda’s aria ‘Pursue Thy Conquest, love’ the instrumental accompaniment is only a ground bass despite the fact that this piece is certainly one of Belinda’s arias. Later, at the opening of the second act, the witches’ hold conference and their dialogues are interspersed with bursts from the strings, despite the fact that they are singing recitatives which ought to have no more than a ground bass accompanying it. This was a somewhat difficult point (distinguishing between arias and recitatives/ensembles) as there was no reading done prior to the watching of the opera and no explanations were given before, during or after the opera itself. As the opera progressed, there was one very overt common feature among all the arias which the recitatives did not have it is perhaps the most important feature which distinguishes the two forms – repetition. Recitatives never repeated sentences, except for emphasis, whereas the arias had an extraordinary amount of repetition.
If one were to compare operatic libretti to contemporary songs, the first shock is probably that, given the length of operas – they usually run into hours (even Dido and Aeneas, though missing large section, is almost an hour long), they are quite small compared to modern songs. This is clearly due to repetition. This feature is essential to the operatic form because, unlike in ‘lighter’ genres such as musicals or even operettas, the focus is on the text with music (usually) only being used to ‘prettify’ the stage. In opera, however, music and poetry have an equal partnership and both must make allowances for each other (interpreted and paraphrased from the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians).
With this understanding of the partnership between music and poetry, one can move on to the truly dramatic final act of the play. The first scene of this act consists of a sailor bringing news to the Trojan fleet that they are to set sail without delay. The previous act contained the witches’ plot – to send an elf disguised as Mercury to tell Aeneas that he was to leave Carthage immediately. This urgency is communicated through the sailor in his aria, and the scene ends with a dance signifying that the fleet was getting ready to sail. The second scene, which is at Dido’s palace, is where the grand finale will take place. Initially, it is only Dido and Belinda who appear on stage and, upon hearing news that Aeneas was to leave Carthage without fulfilling his promise to marry her, Dido becomes distraught. Immediately after Aeneas enters and after realizing the pain he had caused Dido, he promises her that he would stay and defy the gods.
Dido’s response to this is one which simply cannot be atoned for in any ordinary narrative. The speed with which she rejected him and vehemence with which she continued to hold her stance and demand that he leave at once, followed by her immediate descent into misery and suicide is not easily acceptable by any audience member. This is where music makes up for the limitations of words. Dido’s and Aeneas’ duet, though only containing variations of the phrase ‘I will stay’ for Aeneas and ‘you must go’ for Dido, creates the poignancy missing in the words. The abrupt transition in mood from frenzy to sorrow is carried out by music alone, without words.
This brings the opera to its final dramatic aria – ‘When I am Laid’ or ‘Dido’s Lament’. This piece has the whole string orchestra accompanying. The violins double Dido’s voice, with violas and cellos providing a very simply sustained harmony and the harpsichord (or cembalo) providing the chords and the beat. It is arguable that the piece is remarkable in and of itself – its structure is perfect for the role it plays. There are barely four lines to sing for four minutes – clearly the end of the story is not in the words; it is the music which utters it. The slow rise from the first ‘When I am laid’ to the last ‘But, ah, forget my fate’ creates the perfect feel of a slowly stopping music box. After this aria, there is only one final chorus, which serves as a musical epilogue, showing the cremation of Dido. The final scene in the performance was rose petals being dropped on the charred remains of Dido’s funeral pyre which seems to look forward to Mozart’s famous statement in one of his letters that music, even at its darkest moments must please and flatter the ear.

Work Cited

Birch, Simon. “Purcell: Dido and Aeneas, opera in three acts, Z. 626 | Richard Hickox”.
Online video clip. Youtube. (Youtube, 18 Oct 2012. Web. 8 Feb 2015).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30Idh9ySHa8.
Harris, Ellen T. Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. (New York, New York: Clarendon
Press, 1987) 90-96.
Price, Curtis. "Dido and Aeneas: questions of style and evidence." Early music22, no.
1 (1994): 115-126.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians. Vol. 1084.
(New York: Macmillan, 2001) 149-193.
The Oxford Dictionary of Music. (Oxford Music Online. 2006. Web. 8 Feb 2015).
Bibliography
Birch, Simon. “Purcell: Dido and Aeneas, opera in three acts, Z. 626 | Richard Hickox”.
Online video clip. Youtube. (Youtube, 18 Oct 2012. Web. 8 Feb 2015).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30Idh9ySHa8.
Harris, Ellen T. Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. (New York, New York: Clarendon
Press, 1987) 90-96.
Price, Curtis. "Dido and Aeneas: questions of style and evidence." Early music22, no.
1 (1994): 115-126.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians. Vol. 1084.
(New York: Macmillan, 2001) 149-193.
The Oxford Dictionary of Music. (Oxford Music Online. 2006. Web. 8 Feb 2015).

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