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Dido and Aeneas

Pinchgut Opera revels in the possibilities
Pinchgut Opera
ABR Arts 03 June 2024

Dido and Aeneas

Pinchgut Opera revels in the possibilities
Pinchgut Opera
ABR Arts 03 June 2024
Valda Wilson as Dido (photograph by Cassandra Hannagan)
Valda Wilson as Dido (photograph by Cassandra Hannagan)

A powerful sense of irony accompanies the poignant final words sung by Queen Dido of Carthage as she contemplates her imminent death in Henry Purcell’s compact three-act, hour-long opera Dido and Aeneas. ‘Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate’, has echoed down the ages since the late seventeenth century, but little is known, never mind remembered, about the actual performance of the opera in Purcell’s time.

Dido’s demise is occasioned by the departure of Aeneas as he is summoned away from Carthage by Mercury, at the instigation of Aeneas’s mother, Venus, to what will become the founding of Rome. Dido, realising that she has been betrayed by Aeneas, sees death as the only possibility to regain her honour and dignity, thus becoming an archetypal operatic abandoned woman in a long line from Monteverdi’s Ariadne to Puccini’s Butterfly. She takes her own life with Aeneas’s sword; the nobility of the music is heartbreaking and has become one of the most celebrated operatic arias, frequently heard in recitals, but also in other versions – Jeff Buckley’s poignant performance being one of the most memorable. 

The events surrounding the legend of Dido that forms the basis of the opera are found in Book IV of Roman poet Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, itself drawing upon Greek sources in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The figure of Dido haunted artists throughout the following centuries, culminating in the first major operatic version of the tale, Francesco Cavalli’s La Didone of 1641, performed in the first public opera house, newly opened in Venice, a well-documented occasion.

This cannot be said of Purcell’s Dido – the date and location of the first performance is shrouded in tantalising mystery and has engendered a minor musicological industry, without certainty ever being achieved. It is thought that the work had a performance at Charles II’s court, sometime in the 1680s. For many years it was believed that the first performance occurred at a girl’s boarding school in Chelsea, in 1689. This is based on a single copy of playwright Nahum Tate’s undated eight-page libretto, which contained the following fascinating announcement: 

AN OPERA Perform’d at Mr. JOSIAS PRIEST's Boarding-School at CHELSEY. By Young Gentlewomen. The Words Made by Mr. NAT. TATE. The Musick Composed by Mr. Henry Purcell.

However, recent research suggests an earlier court performance, some of the evidence being that the part of Aeneas was scored for a tenor, and the chorus includes tenor and bass parts, obviously problematic for a girl’s school. A tentative consensus seems to have emerged that the ‘adult’ version of the opera was premièred some time between 1684 and 1689, before what appears to have been a relatively lavish reworked revival at the school. Amusingly, a letter exists from a Mrs A. Buck, written to her friend Mary Clarke, the wife of a member of parliament, criticising the performance of Dido as inappropriate and of no educational value for the well-born daughters at Priest’s school. As a contemporary commentator acidly observes: ‘Whatever Dido may have done for English opera, it did nothing for the reputation of London’s schools’!

The actual music score only surfaces in 1777, the so-called Tenbury manuscript, believed to be a copy of an earlier manuscript (the original is lost). This score lacks music for several scenes in the Tate libretto. The opera virtually disappeared for more than a century, but was revived in 1895 by the Royal College of Music in London’s Lyceum Theatre, to mark the bicentenary of Purcell’s death. What has come down from the seventeenth century is a fragment, possibly far removed from Purcell’s original.

This convoluted lack of any ‘authentic’ version of the opera lends itself to a powerful sense of freedom and innovation when a production of the work is contemplated. Because of the limited demands in terms of singers and instrumentalists, it is a work that has attracted many amateur and student performances, leading to its increasing popularity in recent years. However, Dido has also received professional productions, including, memorably, a Berlin dance version by Sasha Waltz incorporating a spectacular water tank, which was staged to great acclaim in the 2014 Sydney Festival.

Erin Helyard, artistic director of Pinchgut, has attempted to construct a performance as close to what the original might have been, with the addition of five dances by Purcell. Lucy Clements’s production revels in the possibilities that this incomplete score offers, starting with a new spoken prologue by actor, playwright, and screen writer Kate Mulvany, expressively delivered with great aplomb by the Sorceress, Kanen Breen. Mulvany sets up a linking device in the form of the eruption of Mount Etna at the time of the events portrayed – two millennia later the volcano still breathes fire, thus connecting the past to the present. This prologue, occasionally accompanied by bursts of orchestral ‘noise’, provides context to the situation in which Dido finds herself. 

PIC TO GO WITH BREENKanen Breen as the Sorceress (photograph by Cassandra Hannagan)

The role of the Sorceress was originally conceived for a baritone, which was the practice on the Restoration stage where witches and sorceresses were almost always performed by men. Pinchgut’s casting of Breen in this role arises from a long tradition, despite the 1777 score requiring a mezzo for the role. Mulvany has drawn upon the many legends surrounding the figure of Dido, as seen through the eyes of the Sorceress, the avowed enemy of Dido. Mulvany has emphasised the jealousy, envy, and malevolence that this figure feels for Dido as expressed in this new opening; its success owes much to the powerful vocal and physical delivery of a spectacularly costumed Breen. Dido is, in many ways, a traumatised queen, and it is through her eyes that the events of the opera are portrayed. Yet the work contains comic elements, including a delightfully bawdy sailors’ song. 

Australian soprano Valda Wilson is a superb Dido with a striking and commanding stage presence and a voice that possesses a wide range of colours and dynamics that fully express the emotional journey undergone by the character. Wilson has established a substantial European career, performing an extensive repertoire ranging through Handel, Gluck, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Strauss, and Brett Dean, with a recent world première performance in the title role of Sarah Nemtsov’s Ophelia in Saarbrücken. Dido is usually portrayed by a mezzo, but Wilson’s rich soprano has an abundance of the tonal depth and warmth required, yet also possesses a thrilling, gleaming quality in the upper range. It is a very ‘long’ voice: this opens up a huge repertoire, for which Wilson certainly has the physical presence and strength. As expected, her final aria was beautifully sung, with the stillness, simplicity and spareness in the orchestral accompaniment matched by her sincerity and focus. It is difficult to imagine this role being portrayed more movingly. 

Sara Macliver as Belinda, Lana Kains as the Second Woman, and Valda Wilson as Dido (photograph by Cassandra Hannagan) Sara Macliver as Belinda, Lana Kains as the Second Woman, and Valda Wilson as Dido (photograph by Cassandra Hannagan)

The role of Aeneas is overshadowed by Dido, both in length and in its musical realisation. He has no substantial aria or song of any kind, contrasted with Dido’s three major arias, and in a sense he functions purely as a prop for the developing tragedy engulfing Dido, who, at first, is a figure susceptible to the attractions of Aeneas, but becomes one whose nobility and generosity completely eclipses the qualities of Aeneas, the potential empire builder. In a sense, the opera concerns the rivalry between Dido and the Sorceress, or, as some have argued, two conflicting aspects of Dido, with Belinda and the Second Woman giving voice to her desires, and the Sorceress and other enchanters voicing her fears, while Aeneas, untrustworthy and unheroic, is reduced to an object of female desire, far from the glory that awaits him In Italy. 

David Greco certainly made the most of what the role offers; a strong, dignified, and vocally impressive performance revealing a rich, multi-hued voice, flexible throughout the often awkward range of the role. A stalwart of the early opera scene in Australia, Greco has an impeccable sense of the required style. Another renowned Australian exponent of baroque opera is Sara Macliver as Belinda. Her silvery voice and stylish singing are a perfect foil to Wilson as Dido; it was a delight to have these superb performers on stage together. 

City Recital Hall is a far from ideal operatic venue, but Pinchgut’s many years of staging opera there is evident in the stylish and engaging production by Lucy Clements, aided by the excellent design by Jeremy Allen, and lighting by Morgan Mooney. The space was utilised to its full extent by movement director Shannon Burns, with the many dances simply but most effectively performed by the small chorus. 

Michelle Ryan, Lana Kains, Olivia Payne, Stephanie Dillon, Louis Hurley, Jack Jordan, Andrew O’Connor, and Freddy Shaw comprise the excellent vocal group. Most of them step out for short solo moments, with Lana Kains revealing an exquisite ethereal soprano as the second woman. The eight voices provide a substantial sound when needed, but most impressive is the beauty, homogeneity and flexibility of their singing. Helyard, as always, is in complete command of the forces of the magnificent Orchestra of the Antipodes. He instantly creates the required atmosphere of this multi-faceted score with subtle yet spirited playing from the ensemble, led by Matthew Greco. A particular delight was the baroque guitar solo from Simon Martin-Ellis.

Sydney is fortunate to have two excellent small opera companies to explore different ends of the operatic repertoire. Sydney Chamber Opera indefatigably commissions and discovers new operas, while Pinchgut stages familiar works from the baroque and classical eras, and revives neglected operas. As was evident on the first night, Pinchgut has a loyal and engaged audience base. It left the creative team in no doubt of the success of this production. 


Dido and Aeneas (Pinchgut Opera) continues at City Recital Hall, Sydney until 3 June 2024. Performance attended: 30 May.

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