Can't Quit Dido
Before COVID and parenthood (two equally life-altering experiences), my wife and I were regular opera-goers. Even before I “settled down,” when I was still working in the music industry, one of the first things I’d do with any extra income was to buy a pair of tickets to whatever L.A. Opera was staging and invite friends and family to come along. It was a blast to have old friends who either identified themselves as opera haters or as simply not interested in “classical music” suddenly get turned on to the cinematic spectacle and sonic indulgence that opera provides (among many additional treasures, of course).
The production my wife and I attended in 2014 was unforgettably moving. The last scene, especially, which seems to have been a creative addition of director Barrie Kosky, featured Dido (after her death?) suffocating by way of her own tears for several intense, uncomfortable minutes, ensuring that nobody in the audience would forget her.
I left the production more-or-less shrugging my shoulders over Aeneas and the “upcoming” war between Rome and Carthage. Nor did I feel consumed with the past, specifically the questions of who was “to blame”: destiny, empire, Aeneas’s patriarchal “selfishness,” Dido’s feminine “self-destructive” love, or what Jan L. De Jong sums up as the prevailing Renaissance view of Dido as “an obstacle on Aeneas’ path to virtue and glory.”
It was the memory of Dido’s ghost that haunted me. She never seemed to have died, exactly.
In the program notes for a Julliard School production, Thomas May says, “Dido clearly commits suicide in the Aeneid, but at the end of the opera, her death is certain but its cause is vague—a kind of negative Liebestod in which the Queen is more sacrificial victim than agent of transfiguration.” (Liebestod, meaning “love death,” is broadly defined as an “aria or duet performed in opera marking the suicide of lovers.”)
Aside from Purcell’s sublime score, perhaps the trio of witches (led by the Sorceress) in this production was meant to guide me towards this experience. Reviewing this production, L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed writes, “Purcell’s Aeneas can blame the silly witches and go off and be a hero without having to take responsibility for the resulting death of a distraught Dido.” A glib statement, perhaps, but it points farther back to the changes that Purcell and librettist Nahum Tate make to Virgil’s version, which deemphasizes the “manifest destiny” of Rome and Aeneas and emphasizes the mythic tragedy of Dido.
In the program notes for a separate Juilliard School production, Thomas May explains that the reworking
not only skips over all this backstory (familiar to the opera’s contemporaries in any case) but removes the layer of Olympian gods who have ulterior motives. In their place, [Tate] interpolates a non-Virgilian cast of grotesque figures: the Sorceress and Witches, who scheme out of pure spite. The appearance of Mercury to Aeneas after the storm in the Grove is another curious change from the literary source. It’s a fake Mercury— the Sorceress’s “trusty Elf”—pretending to carry a message from Jove, whereas in Virgil the god actually intervenes to urge the hero on to Italy. (6)
While there has been much debate over Purcell’s—and even more so Tate’s—possible political motivations or, more broadly, how the general atmosphere of the Restoration period in England influenced these changes, Anthony Welch argues that no completely reliable evidence exists that would give us perfect clarity on the question. “Exploring the dark side of political myth-making,” Welch writes, “Dido and Aeneas may well be the work of a disenchanted Tory, [Tate], impatient with the Augustan absolutism of the Stuarts. Yet efforts to read the opera as a topical commentary on the royal politics of the 1680s have not so far been able to account for its uncertainties and mixed messages, its abrupt shifts of tone, its extreme reticence, its unstable relationship with the Aeneid and with the wronged woman at its centre” (26).
And Dido is the unmistakable “centre”—of both the Aeneid and of Dido and Aeneas—isn’t she?
Whether ancient Roman gods such as Jupiter, Juno, Venus, and Mercury or 17th-century English witches are steering the action, whether it’s the Augustan regime reaffirming the pre-destined Roman empirical project or, in Welch’s words, Tate’s “recast[ing] Dido’s lament as a kind of ideological trap, a manipulative spectacle forced upon the heroine in the name of Virgil’s masculinist, absolutist and imperial myth,” Dido’s agony is what grips us.
In both versions, Aeneas is deeply conflicted. In the Aeneid, Aeneas digests the final warning from Mercury:
Aeneas, stupefied at the vision, was struck dumb,
and his hair rose in terror, and his voice stuck in his throat.
He was eager to be gone, in flight, and leave that sweet land,
shocked by the warning and the divine command.
Alas! What to do? With what speech dare he tackle
the love-sick queen? What opening words should he choose? (Bk IV: 279-330)
In Tate’s libretto, Aeneas is even more of a youthful “Romeo,” reveling in his romantic suffering:
But ah! what language can I try
My injur'd Queen to Pacify:
No sooner she resigns her heart,
But from her arms I'm forc'd to part.
How can so hard a fate be took?
One night enjoy'd, the next forsook.
Yours be the blame, ye gods! For I
Obey your will, but with more ease could die. (Act II)
We see not only Aeneas’s struggle to let Dido down easy, but also the writer’s struggle in bringing the chapter of this legendary character to a close.
Yet how can one ever close the chapter on Dido? In this illustration from a manuscript of the Aeneid (circa A.D. 400), the Queen of Carthage’s fire almost appears to have been iced over.
At this moment, a nonlinear film version might interweave a voice-over of her first words to the Trojans as we watch them disappear:
The city I build is yours: beach your ships:
Trojans and Tyrians will be treated by me without distinction. (Bk I:561-585)
Fade to black. The faint echo of Dido’s unreciprocated magnanimity, endurance, and ardor is barely audible above the surf.
De Jong, Jan L. “Dido in Italian Renaissance Art. The Afterlife of a Tragic Heroine.” Artibus Et Historiae, vol. 30, no. 59, 2009, pp. 73–89. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40343665.
“Dido and Aeneas.” Purcell: Dido & Aeneas, opera.stanford.edu/iu/libretti/dido.html#note.
“Dido and Aeneas, Z.626 (Purcell, Henry).” IMSLP, imslp.org/wiki/Dido_and_Aeneas,_Z.626_(Purcell,_Henry).
“Juilliard Opera Presents Henry Purcell's ‘Dido and Aeneas’ on February 20, 22, and 24, 2019.” The Juilliard School, 22 Jan. 2019, www.juilliard.edu/news/137751/juilliard-opera-presents-henry-purcells-dido-and-aeneas-february-20-22-and-24-2019.
“Review: L.A. Opera Goes Cutting Edge in Double Bill of Purcell, Bartok.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 27 Oct. 2014, www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-la-opera-review-20141027-column.html.
“Virgil.” Virgil (70 BC–19 BC) - Aeneid: IV, www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/VirgilAeneidIV.php#anchor_Toc342032.
Welch, Anthony. “The Cultural Politics of Dido and Aeneas.” Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 21, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–26., doi:10.1017/s0954586709990012.