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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 16 (2010) No. 1

Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, The Royal Opera/The Royal Ballet. Director and Choreographer Wayne McGregor; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Conductor Christopher Hogwood DVD (Opus Arte: OA 1018D, 2009).

Reviewed by Amanda Eubanks Winkler*

1. Introduction

2. The Good

3. The Bad

4. The Ugly

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

1.1 The origins of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas remain shrouded in mystery. Despite (or because of) this ambiguity, much ink has been spilled about the opera, as scholars have speculated about where (at court or at Josias Priest’s school in Chelsea?)1 and when (1684? 1687? 1688? 1689?)2 the work was first performed. Adding to the mystery: the earliest score, Tenbury MS 1266 (5) dates from around 1775 and is incomplete;3 it does not match the earliest version of Nahum Tate’s libretto, a printed souvenir from Priest’s boarding school performance, as it is missing a laudatory prologue, an Act II witches’ chorus, and several dances (the number depends on who does the counting).4 Our scholarly obsession over what constitutes, or how we might reconstruct, Dido and Aeneas surely reflects our own very modern notions of genius and “the work.”5 Purcell’s contemporaries saw no problem with hacking the “original” Dido to bits to serve their own commercial needs, interpolating it into Charles Gildon’s reworking of Measure for Measure (1700) and later using it as an afterpiece, first to Edward Ravenscroft’s comedy The Anatomist and then to George Etheridge’s The Man of Mode—indeed, that’s probably why Purcell’s opera survives at all.6 So why should we mind if Mark Morris or Sasha Waltz or now Wayne McGregor uses Purcell’s score as the basis for modern terpsichorean experiments? Indeed, there may be something inherently “baroque” about such an approach.

1.2 Given my own “baroque” proclivities, when I see a new performance of Dido I do not judge its worth based on its fidelity to some never fully recoverable score or the creators’ purported intentions. Rather, I judge a production on whether it works aesthetically and whether it successfully communicates the emotional content of the musical drama.7 Unfortunately, according to these criteria, McGregor’s Dido and Aeneas is a decidedly mixed bag.

2. The Good

2.1 The musical preparation for this production of Dido is solid; under the expert guidance of Christopher Hogwood, the Orchestra of the Enlightenment plays cleanly, if a bit dryly, on its period instruments, and the singers perform with nuance and expressiveness. Some of the visuals fashioned by choreographer/director Wayne McGregor are quite effective: the opera opens on an emotionally resonant and intimate scene as Dido’s women dress her, transforming a vulnerable, shift-clad woman into a regal head of state. The act of dressing the queen is richly multivalent, and for this viewer it brought to mind new historicist scholarship regarding the power of costume to constitute early modern identity.8 But as this scholarship also tells us, identity is protean. By the end of Purcell’s French overture, Belinda has removed Dido’s quasi-Elizabethan collar, erasing her potential alignment with the Virgin Queen (appropriately so, as Purcell’s Dido is no virgin).9 Another visually rich moment occurs a bit later in Act I: a silhouetted figure of the Sorceress appears in a framed box above Dido as the queen sings the ground-bass lament, “Ah, Belinda, I am pressed with torment,” serving as a piquant reminder of Roger Savage’s interpretation of the Sorceress as Dido’s “destructive anti-self.”10 Finally, McGregor’s staging choices create an appropriately eerie atmosphere at the end of Act II, when a grotesquely serpentine dancer mimes the false Mercury onstage while an offstage singer (Iestyn Davies) gives the Sorceress’s “trusty elf” voice.

2.2 Sarah Connolly is stunning as Dido, transcending some of the more ridiculous elements of the production by the sheer force of her admirable voice and acting talent. This fine mezzo-soprano, who languished for years doing choral work with the BBC singers and others, makes her long-overdue debut at the Royal Opera House in this role. Connolly possesses a wonderfully supple and rich instrument, and she excels as the tormented queen, fleshing out Purcell’s and Tate’s sometimes imperfect drama. She lends pathos and nuance to moments that in lesser hands feel hollow because of the extreme compression of the story, a compression exacerbated by the incompleteness of the surviving sources. For example, at the end of Act II after communing with the false Mercury, the Trojan prince decides to abandon Dido and seek his fate in Italy. Because of the missing music at the end of Act II, just a few short minutes of stage time after Aeneas’s decision to leave, a distraught Dido confronts her feckless lover, and Aeneas loses his nerve, vowing to stay. The duet that ensues almost veers toward domestic farce, as Purcell sets Tate’s doggerel verse “Away, away” / “No, no, I’ll stay” as a rapid-fire musical exchange, which, in amateurish hands, makes Dido and Aeneas sound like a bickering couple escaped from a Restoration comedy.  Although I have sometimes heard snickers from audiences during performances of this duet, Connolly’s voice, gestures, and tearful eyes expertly convey Dido’s intense physical desire for Aeneas, even as she realizes that her lover is a cad.

3. The Bad

3.1 Some might instinctively shudder at the prospect of yet another choreographer tackling Purcell’s opera. Although the critical response to Mark Morris’s 1989 production was largely positive, more recent attempts to stage a terpsichorean Dido have not been as successful.11 Unfortunately, McGregor’s modern dance choreography, with the exception of the effective false Mercury episode, works against the emotional content of Purcell’s score. His dancers prance about inexplicably, their physical gestures adding nothing to the drama, and his attempts to choreograph the chorus fall flat as the singers stride rhythmically, yet purposelessly, around the stage. Strangely, given the focus on dance, McGregor and Hogwood choose not to restore the missing dances cued in the Chelsea libretto.12

3.2 Besides the benighted choreography, McGregor sometimes made questionable casting choices. His decision to portray the First and Second Witches as conjoined twins clearly sought to portray the deformity that early moderns believed reflected the witch’s corrupted spiritual core.13 Yet these two witches’ roles are taken by singers of Asian and African descent (Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza)—a choice that made this viewer a bit queasy as, perhaps unconsciously, the director conflates evil with racial “Others.”            

4. The Ugly

4.1 McGregor’s greatest directorial sin is the erasure of ambiguity from Dido and Aeneas. He obviously does not trust the intelligence of his audience, an all-too-common problem among Baroque opera directors. In the Act II Grove Scene, Aeneas (the beefy and boring Lucas Meachem) gives Dido a necklace crafted from a boar’s tusk (“Behold, upon my bending spear / A monster’s head stands bleeding”). Curtis Price and others have noted the phallic implications of Aeneas’s declaration.14 However, just in case modern audiences might not get it, McGregor has Dido writhe in pleasure against a thrusting Aeneas as the huntsman puts his gory trophy around her neck. Even more egregiously, at the end of the opera, Dido does not die from lovesick grief; instead she commits suicide onstage. McGregor does not, however, restore Virgil and have the heroine kill herself with Aeneas’s dagger; rather, she slits her wrist with the boar’s tusk necklace during the chorus “Great minds against themselves conspire,” forcing her compatriots to watch her bleed out during the famous lament that follows. Inexplicably, Dido’s courtiers do little to help her, although Belinda does try to mop up a bit of blood with the hem of her gown.

5. Conclusion

5.1 Baroque opera productions need not pander to the lowest common denominator, nor do they have to be stiff, lifeless, and boring—a bloodless, yet faithful, reenactment of what appears on the page. The best ones combine the desire to entertain with a healthy respect for the intelligence of the audience. Fortunately for Wayne McGregor, a star performer can save a flawed director. For when I hear Sarah Connolly lusciously sing “Remember me, but ah forget my fate” I feel quite sure that I will remember her impassioned plea, even as I forget the bad and the ugly elements of this particular production.


*Amanda Eubanks Winkler (awinkler@syr.edu) is Associate Professor of Music History and Cultures at Syracuse University. A specialist in English theater music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Winkler is author of Music for Macbeth (A-R Editions, 2004) and O Let Us Howle Some Heavy Note: Music for Witches, the Melancholic, and the Mad on the Seventeenth-Century English Stage (Indiana University Press, 2006).

1 Michael Burden [in his review of Ellen T. Harris, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, The Musical Times 130, no. 1752 (Feb. 1989): 85–6] and Peter Holman [in his review of Dido and Aeneas, full score, ed. Ellen T. Harris, and vocal score, ed. Edward J. Dent, rev. Harris, Music and Letters 71, no. 4 (Nov. 1990): 617–20] both forwarded the theory that the boarding school performance was not the first. The discovery of a libretto from a school performance of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis bolstered speculation that Dido, like Venus and Adonis, was performed at court, then at Priest’s school; see Richard Luckett, “A New Source for ‘Venus and Adonis,’” The Musical Times 130, no. 1752 (Feb. 1989): 76–9. Other scholars have written about this purported court performance, most notably Bruce Wood and Andrew Pinnock, “‘Unscarr’d by turning times’? The Dating of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas,” Early Music 20, no. 3 (Aug. 1992): 372–90; Andrew R. Walkling, “The Dating of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas? A Reply to Bruce Wood and Andrew Pinnock,” Early Music 22, no. 3 (Aug. 1994): 469-81; and Walkling, “Political Allegory in Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas,’” Music and Letters 76, no. 4 (Nov. 1995): 540–71.

2 Wood and Pinnock propose a 1684 performance date (primarily based on stylistic and other circumstantial evidence), while Walkling claims 1687 (based on his political allegorical reading of the work). For many years, scholars believed that the Priest school performance took place in 1689, the date of Thomas D’Urfey’s published epilogue; see, for example, Curtis Price, Henry Purcell and the London Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 225. Now the 1689 date is in question. Epistolary evidence found by Bryan White suggests a performance date no later than July 1688, see Bryan White, “Letter from Aleppo: Dating the Chelsea School Performance of Dido and Aeneas,” Early Music 37, no. 3 (Aug. 2009): 417–28.

3 Ellen Harris has dated the Tenbury manuscript to 1775, but judging from the “antiquated style of musical notation” it was probably copied from an earlier, now lost, source; Ellen Harris, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 45. For more on the Tenbury manuscript, see Price, Henry Purcell and the London Stage, 242–3.

4 Burden believes that some of the supposedly “missing” dances in Restoration opera would have actually been danced to the preceding chorus; he uses a stage direction (i.e., “Dance this Cho.”) from Dido’s libretto to demonstrate that this happened after “Fear no danger”; see “To Repeat (or Not to Repeat)? Dance Cues in Restoration Opera,” Early Music 35, no. 3 (Aug. 2007): 397­–417. Richard Semmens discusses six extant dances from Dido; see “Dancing and Dance Music in Purcell’s Operas,” in Performing the Music of Henry Purcell, ed. Michael Burden (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 180–96 and particularly his appendix, p. 282. More recently, Andrew Walkling has revisited the issue of the missing dances; see “The Masque of Actaeon and the Antimasque of Mercury: Dance, Dramatic Structure, and Tragic Exposition in Dido and Aeneas,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 63, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 191–242.

5 Lydia Goehr has argued that modern notions of “the work” emerge in the nineteenth century; The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, revised ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), originally published in 1992. See also many of the essays in Richard Taruskin, Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). I would claim that we need to historicize the idea of a “work” as it might signify quite differently within an early modern context, a point that is also made by John Butt, “The Seventeenth-Century Musical ‘Work,’” in The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Music, ed. Tim Carter and John Butt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 51.

6 Fleshing out a hypothesis first forwarded by Eric Walter White, Curtis Price has suggested that the version found in the Tenbury manuscript probably reflects revisions made to Dido in order to cram it into Gildon’s Measure for Measure in 1700 and later to make it suitable as an afterpiece for Ravenscroft’s The Anatomist and Etheridge’s The Man of Mode in 1704. See White, “Early Theatrical Performances of Purcell’s Operas, with a Calendar of Recorded Performances, 1690–1710,” Theatre Notebook 13, no. 2 (Winter 1958/1959), 43–65; White, “New Light on Dido and Aeneas,” in Henry Purcell (1659–1695): Essays on His Music, ed. Imogen Holst (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 14–34; and Price, Henry Purcell and the London Stage, 242.

7 Wye J. Allanbrook makes a similar point in her review of Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas; she uses the term “cover” to describe interpretative glosses upon a known work and praises Morris for being attentive to the emotional content and the musical structures of Purcell’s opera; Allanbrook, “The Death of a Queen,” repercussions 4, no. 2 (Fall 1995): 30–41.

8 Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes and Identity on the Renaissance Stage,” in Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, ed. Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 289–320; Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Martha C. Howell, “The Dangers of Dress,” in Commerce Before Capitalism in Europe, 1300–1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 208–60.

9 Earlier English iterations of the Dido and Aeneas story drew connections between the Queen of Carthage and the Queen of England. See Diane Purkiss, “The Queen on Stage: Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and the Representation of Elizabeth I,” in A Woman Scorn’d: Responses to the Dido Myth, ed. Michael Burden (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 151–67.

10 Roger Savage, “Producing Dido and Aeneas,” in Henry Purcell, Purcell, Dido and Aeneas: An Opera, ed. Curtis Price (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1986), 276.

11 In addition to the positive notice by Allanbrook, see Gay Morris’s scholarly examination of gender in Morris’s production, “‘Styles of the Flesh’: Gender in the Dances of Mark Morris,” in Moving Words, Re-Writing Dance, ed. Gay Morris (London: Routledge, 1996), 141–58, and Sophia Preston’s close reading of Morris’s use of gesture in “Echoes and Pre-Echoes: The Displacement of Time in Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas,” Proceedings of the Society of Dance History Scholars 23 (2000): 344–8.

12 On the dance cues in the libretto, see Walkling, “Masque of Actaeon,” particularly his chart of dances on p. 201. Hogwood inserts a short instrumental piece in Act I where “A Dance Gittars Chacony” is cued in the libretto, and he also provides an instrumental transition between Acts II and III (in the libretto the witches reappear to sing a chorus at the end of Act II; this is followed by “The Groves Dance”). McGregor does not choreograph either instrumental interlude.

13 For a recent discussion of the spiritual, musical, and physical deformity of theatrical witches see Amanda Eubanks Winkler, O Let Us Howle Some Heavy Note: Music for Witches, the Melancholic and the Mad on the Seventeenth-Century English Stage (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 18–62. For more on the conventions for musical witchcraft during this period, see also Steven E. Plank, “‘And Now About the Cauldron Sing’: Music and the Supernatural on the Restoration Stage,” Early Music 18, no. 3 (Aug. 1990): 392–407.

14 See Price, Henry Purcell and the London Stage, 246 and Burden, “‘Great Minds Against Themselves Conspire’: Purcell’s Dido as Conspiracy Theorist,” in A Woman Scorn’d, 233–4.

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