Dido and Aeneas - A Synopsis
Prologue - Accompanied by a selection of Purcell’s instrumental music, the Prologue shows life at Dido’s Palace in Carthage and the first meeting of Dido and Aeneas. The Sorceress and the witches, unseen by the Court, begin to plot against the couple.
Act I - Dido awakes with serious self doubt and foreboding. She had sworn never to remarry after the death of her husband but the arrival of Aeneas has made her think again. Moreover all her Court is in favour of this potential love match: it would surely confirm the power of Carthage and secure the courtiers’ own future.
Aeneas arrives – handsome (his mother was Venus!), brave (he has just been shipwrecked on his way to Italy) and charming. Belinda tells Dido to ‘peruse thy conquest’ and the whole court decides to go off hunting, not least to allow Dido and Aeneas the chance to be together.
Act II, Scene 1 - There’s trouble afoot! The Sorceress and witches are dedicated to bringing down Dido and destroy Carthage, partly because they despise her wealth and success, but mainly because they just adore causing trouble. They decide to conjure up a storm to spoil the hunting party, and to produce a Spirit who will appear before Aeneas and instruct him to leave Dido and carry on his voyage of conquest to Italy. They settle down in their echoing cave to concoct a magic potion. The scene ends with an instruction from Purcell for the orchestra to make ‘horrid music’. No problem.
Act II, Scene 2 - The hunting party has found a lovely picnic spot, but there is some unease which reflects Dido’s mood. Aeneas appears to announce that he has killed a monster. Before he has time to persuade Dido to view his heroic kill, the storm arrives and everyone hurries back to the Palace.
Aeneas is about to follow when the Spirit appears and tells him to leave Carthage. (The witches really are very good at their job.) Aeneas is anguished by the impossible decision he must make: to stay with Dido or obey Zeus and leave. He knows he must leave, but ‘with more ease could die’.
Act III - Having produced a storm and a spirit, the Witches complete their fun by becoming sailors to make sure that Aeneas really does leave, and it handily puts them on the harbourside to witness the grief. They could not be happier. Dido will not be consoled. Belinda tries to point out that Aeneas himself is clearly distraught, and the hero pleads divine intervention. Dido will not accept his excuses; he says he’ll stay; she says it’s too late. He leaves, and Dido sees no future but to die.
Both her Court and the Witches have observed this fierce argument and reflect that even great minds can conspire to bring about their own downfall unnecessarily.
Nicholas Smith on this production
Dido and Aeneas is the perfect opera in miniature. The action races by: blink and you will probably miss something, and that is particularly true at the beginning. I really want to emphasise Dido’s amazing qualities: she is clearly intelligent, feisty, capable and a great leader. The opera has her falling in love with the shipwrecked and bedraggled Aeneas before she has even seen him, so I have added a musical prologue, plundered from Purcell’s huge output of dramatic music, during which Aeneas’s arrival at Carthage can be accompanied by court entertainment and a chance for Dido to be moved by his bravery and noble bearing.
The witches latch on to this budding romance quickly and clearly relish every opportunity to destroy any normal relationship. Perhaps they are themselves devoid of romantic feelings and insanely jealous of the royal couple. Their magical powers enable them to roam about court without being seen, to conjure up storms, to pretend to be a messenger of the gods and transform into sailors.
Photography - Fiona Bailey, The White Galley, 13 Wellington Road, Bollington, Cheshie, SK10 5JR.