Dido & Æneas

Henry Purcell

Dido & Æneas

Henry Purcell

Opera in one prologue and three acts, based on a libretto by Nahum Tate, first performed on December 1689 at the Boarding School for girls from Chelsea, in London.

New prologue with an original text by Maylis de Kerangal

New production of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and its Académie in coproduction with the Bolshoi Theater – State Academic Theater of Russia

Run time : 1 hour and 15 minutes

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, cour de l’Archevêché, 7-23/07/2018

Creators

Conductor : Václav Luks
Stage Director : Vincent Huguet
Stage Designer : Aurélie Maestre
Costume Designer : Caroline de Vivaise
Lighting Designer : Bertrand Couderc
Dramaturge : Louis Geisler

Language coach : Sophie Daneman
Conductor assistant, vocal coach : Pierre Gallon
Stage director assistant : Sophie Petit
Costumes assistant : Marie Szersnovicz

Cast

Dido : Kelebogile Pearl Besong (07/07) , Anaïk Morel (10-23/07)
Woman from Cyprus : Rokia Traoré
Æneas : Tobias Greenhalgh
Belinda : Sophia Burgos
Sorceress / Spirit : Lucile Richardot
Second Woman : Rachel Redmond
First Witch : Fleur Barron
Second Witch : Majdouline Zerari
Sailor : Peter Kirk

Chorus and orchestra Ensemble Pygmalion

Continuo :
Harpischord : Pierre Gallon
Harpischord and organ : Ronan Khalil
Harp : Angélique Mauillon
Théorbo : Pierre Rinderknecht
Théorbo : Diego Salamanca
Viola de gamba : Josh Cheatham
Cello : Antoine Touche
Double bass : Thomas De Pierrefeu

Prologue:
N’Goni : Mamah Diabaté

Actress : Lucile Tèche

Photos : © Vincent Pontet and Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Note on the staging
Vincent Huguet

Dido on the shores of exile

 

There is increasing uncertainty surrounding the genesis of Dido and Aeneas. The only thing we know, almost for certain, is that the opera was performed in 1689 in London at a boarding school for gentlewomen in Chelsea. After the performance, one Lady Dorothy Burke read Epilogue, written with a mischievous pen by Thomas d’Urfey, tasked with conveying the moral of the story, should these girls “blest with innocence and peace of mind” not have grasped it fully: to beware of “those grand deceivers, men”. Little do we know if these words acted like drops of water on hot stones or if they only served to fan the flames of the pyre on which Dido died of the absolute, all-consuming love one discovers, or dreams of, in the innocence and passion of adolescence.

The story of the queen of Carthage is swiftly told in Purcell’s work, like a handful of sand running through your fingers: hardly has this reciprocal love been half-confessed, than thunder rumbles, Aeneas, misled, must weigh anchor, with good reason – to found Rome – and Dido is already consumed with visions of darkness and her death. “Remember me, but ah! forget my fate”: it’s already over, and barely an hour has passed.

The glory of this particular abandoned beauty, among all of the others, is her death full of courage and dignity; her refusal to survive the departure of the man she has finally allowed herself to love. Many a painter has depicted that tragic moment of female heroism culminating in martyrdom. And yet, when Dido sings “When I am laid in earth,” there is something in the music of Purchell that persistently begs the question, over and over: “What is she dying of?” From the beginning, from the very first scene, Dido appears distressed, “prest with torment not to be confest”, inaccessible, rejecting Belinda’s efforts to cheer her up. Like Cleopatra, and Ariadne, Dido cannot be reduced to her tragic end: there is her whole life before it, the long path that led her there; there is a Dido before Aeneas and even before Carthage.

The life of Dido can be imagined and reconstructed through various sources, Virgil’s Aeneid being the best known among them, but not the only one: other Roman historians tell the story of the early years of the Princess of Tyre and her brother Pygmalion, while in Tunisia an enduring tradition preserves the memory of the queen Elissa, as she is also known, to whom Fawzi Mellah devoted his novel. Nahum Tate, author of the fine libretto to which Purcell composed his opera, chooses to retain only part of her story – the end – like most of the other librettists and artists inspired by Dido. Which makes us want to learn more about this woman capable, overnight, of leaving her Phoenician homeland on a ship carrying almost only men, to roam the seas for years before founding Carthage. What Aeneas sets off to achieve in Italy she has already accomplished, which is not such a common occurrence in history or even in legend. Dido had, before Aeneas, experienced grief, violence, men, the lust for power, nightmares telling her to leave immediately, before dawn, the shores looming like walls and pushing back out to sea those in flight and that nobody wants. Carthage was born of this voyage, this will to survive and rebuild, elsewhere, a life broken in the native land. Its ruins speak of the fragility of this rebirth.

These are echoes that perhaps escaped the young “Protestants and English Nuns”: from Tyre to Carthage, Cyprus and Rome, it is a story rooted in the Mediterranean; a story of exiles and heroes who take to the sea come what may, sell their soul or their body, brave the storms; who meet in exceptional circumstances only to be separated almost immediately; who sometimes come to each other’s aid and sometimes violently betray each other, and who, often, die. Dido is no saint, and to survive she took huge risks; but she also subjugated, and lied; to found Carthage, she deceived the community living there and then refused assimilation, something from which Rome, on the contrary, would derive much of its power. Why do the Witches hate her? There must be a reason for these Sabines before the Sabines wanting to hurt her, but their fates are linked. One senses, throughout Purcell’s opera, a bond between the queen and the chorus, the hybrid community surrounding her and that founded this new city, or “colony”; one that appears joyful, fickle, melancholic, rebellious, even feverish, like the mercenaries gathered “at Megara, a suburb of Carthage, in the gardens of Hamilcar” in the opening of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô. This community of exiles is at once her memory, her identity and her bad conscience, like a mirror revealing the grandeur and the vanity of the power she has acquired. Before these Witches, thirsty for revenge, Dido must face up to her own life, and now to her death.

What about love? Is it permitted for a queen to love? Purcell, who, in the years following the creation of Dido and Aeneas, composed music to accompany the entire short reign of Queen Mary II until her death, had no doubt acquired some insight into the heart of princesses: used from childhood to form alliances, married without their consent to cousins or old men, sent away far from home from one day to the next. Many queens without crowns still inhabit the shores where Dido walked, coming up against the same walls or others further away – Yazidi women, Nigerian schoolgirls, who endure the violence of conflicts that leave them almost no escape. Like them, Dido managed to overcome the worst ordeals; she is still alive, but haunted by the choices she had to make, perhaps destroyed by what she has experienced. Aeneas may be her last chance, a small, but feeble, flame, just as Purcell composed it: no rapturous duet, almost only doubts, entreaties, and then farewells. What Purcell seems to be expressing is less a cruelly thwarted love affair than a feeling that cannot take hold. Even before the Witches bring about Aeneas’s departure, Dido refuses the Trojan’s advances and sends him away when he speaks of defying orders and staying with her. No husband, no marriage, no child, no issue. Her story will end. Yet it is she who decides to end it there, to forgo transmission, to die uttering farewells that go back a long way, which shock because they separate the woman from her destiny. What Dido is asking for is exactly the opposite of how it would be in imperial Rome, where the emperor, upon death, was deified and the man forgotten. Only the woman remains, and, in ridding herself of all that she has conquered, she becomes one of those other women, one of those castaways: her voice becomes theirs.