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A guide to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and its best recordings

True love, evil plotting, a hero's calling... the story in Virgil's Aeneid is retold in Purcell's opera. Here, you can find out more about the story, music and performances of Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas, engraving by Viviani from a drawing by Gonin, frontispiece of Eneide di Virgilio (Virgil's Aeneid) popularized by Annibal Caro, Volume I, David Passigli & C. Publishers, Florence, 1836. (Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images)

What is Dido and Aeneas?

In his composing career, Henry Purcell only produced one true opera: Dido and Aeneas. This work is his only dramatic composition that is sung throughout, whereas productions such as The Fairy Queen are only semi-operas because they also include dialogue and dance scenes. This opera is based on the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, with a libretto by Nahum Tate, known for his controversial re-imaginings of classic and Shakespearean literature.

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Dido and Aeneas is formed of a prologue and three acts, and concludes with possibly its most famous moment: Dido’s Lament, or the tragic aria ‘When I am laid in earth’. Read the full lyrics of ‘Dido’s Lament’ here.

When was Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas composed?

It is uncertain when exactly Dido and Aeneas was composed, though scholars agree it was in the 1680s. One of its earliest performances, at a girls’ boarding-school in Chelsea, is said to have taken place 1689. However, other Purcell experts suggest that the opera began as royal court entertainment, using an intimate ensemble and staging: Dido and Aeneas was a possible allegory for the marriage of William and Mary.

The little we know about this Baroque opera’s beginnings results from its fragmentary sources, each of which pertain to different performances in Purcell’s lifetime and beyond: there is no definitive manuscript in Purcell’s hand. Therefore, performances have to choose between combining elements of different performances and recreating a specific known performance in order to interpret the work.

Without the specific direction that modern manuscripts have, Dido and Aeneas demands imagination from its directors, whose interpretations of the available material make or break the production. Facilitating creative freedom, the opera leaves room for diverse recordings and castings, with many characters interpreted androgynously and/or performed by a variety of voice types. For example, Dido and the Sorceress have been performed by the same actress, exploring the Sorceress as the dark side of the queen. In other productions the Sorceress and her witches have been played by basses or tenors.

Who are Dido and Aeneas?

Dido is a historical figure: she was the first queen of Carthage, a Phoenician city-state. She was born in 839 BC, founded Carthage in 814 BC and is thought to have died in 759 BC. As her life is detailed in ancient Greek and Roman sources, she has taken on a legendary status in history and popular culture.

Aeneas is a Trojan hero found in both Greek and Roman mythology. In Greek sources, Aeneas is the son of Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) and a mortal Trojan prince. The most detailed account of Aeneas’s life, and also Dido’s life, is from Virgil’s Aeneid, a Roman epic poem and the basis of Purcell’s opera.

While the characters are placed on level footing in the opera’s title, there is a disparity in the content written for them, with considerably more material given to Dido and the character of the Sorceress than there is given to Aeneas.

What is the story of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas?

The narrative of Dido and Aeneas is based mainly on Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid and opens with Dido wrestling with her feelings for Aeneas and her duties as queen. Encouraged by Belinda, Dido accepts Aeneas’s proposal of marriage.

The opera’s antagonist is a sorceress, who plots the downfall of Carthage and its monarch. The Sorceress summons a storm to separate the lovers: as Dido leaves to take shelter from the weather, Aeneas is stopped by the Roman messenger god Mercury, who is the Sorceress’s elf in disguise. The false Mercury encourages Aeneas to continue his journey to Italy – which had been interrupted by his being shipwrecked in Carthage – and build a new Troy.

Aeneas believes this message from the ‘gods’, much to the Sorceress’s delight, and leaves to prepare his departure. The Sorceress plans to destroy Aeneas on the ocean. Aeneas admits his plans to Dido, who forces him to leave. Dido sings her last aria and dies from her heartbreak, lighting a funeral pyre for Aeneas to see as he sails way.

The best recording of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

Susan Graham, Ian Bostridge, Camilla Tilling, Felicity Palmer, David Daniels, Cécile de Boever & Paul Agnew; Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haim
Erato 5034222   (2003)

Clocking in at just 52 minutes, Emmanuelle Haim’s production of Dido and Aeneas packs vibrant, insistent drama into a relatively short performance. Heightened by the recording’s duration, its intensity is musically articulated by exaggerated staccato moments and distinct tempo changes. The vocal performances are stellar in their own right and thoughtfully complemented by Haim’s instrumental choices for the continuos in effective combinations of character, voice and accompaniment. These elements blend to precisely portray the narrative’s dramatic and emotional nuances. Haim herself conducts from the harpsichord, immersing herself into the sound as well as directing it.

Ian Bostridge achieves a difficult feat in the role of Aeneas: to stand out. Though the role is easily sidelined and is often viewed as rather passive, Bostridge is commanding in his characterisation of the hero, adding depth to an often apathetic character. As Dido, Susan Graham is regal and devastating, a portrait of heartbreak: Dido is accessible, rather than alienating, in her position as the doomed Queen of Carthage.

Four more great recordings of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

Anthony Lewis (Decca 1961)

This classic performance placed Janet Baker on her first recorded disc and into the Dido hall of fame: her performance in this production is often the benchmark for sopranos in this leading role. The disc as a whole remains timeless for Dido enthusiasts, revered for its vibrant and moving interpretation of the opera.

Read our review of this performance’s reissue in 2000

William Christie (Erato 1995)

This intimate recording places authenticity at the forefront and remains the best of the opera’s historically informed performances. Christie’s period ensemble beautifully complements the controlled, regal voice of Véronique Gens as Dido.

René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi 2001)

Of this period ensemble interpretation, critic Nicholas Anderson writes, ‘With a cast of singers such as the one chosen by René Jacobs for his new recording of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas it would be hard to imagine anything short of a triumph… Jacobs paces the drama effectively, seldom underplaying the wide range of emotions contained in the music.’

Read our full review of this recording here

Devine/Kenny (Chandos 2009)

In the hands of Devine and Kenny, Dido and Aeneas extends to a lengthy, but welcome, 70 minutes, built from an amalgamation of various known performances from the 17th and 18th centuries. Its star-studded cast is led by Sarah Connolly who brings to life a deliciously dark and impassioned Dido.

Read more reviews of the latest Purcell recordings

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Top image credit: Getty Images