Purcell - Dido and Aeneas

English Baroque composer Henry Purcell wrote his first opera based on the story of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the Prince of Troy, Aeneas, based on a libretto by Nahum Tate. It was first performed in 1689.

Based on book IV of Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, Henry Purcell may have composed his first and only all-sung work around 1685, or perhaps even earlier.

The English composer John Blow produced his opera Venus and Adonis, which was partly based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with a text by Aphra Behn. It was first performed at the court of Charles II and Purcell was almost certainly sitting in the audience taking it all in. He substituted Virgil for Ovid and the Aeneid for Metamorphoses. Librettist Nahum Tate, rather than Aphra Behn, wrote the text. And instead of the court of Charles II, he favoured the unlikely venue of Josias Priest’s Boarding School for Girls, in Chelsea. Dido and Aeneas was first performed there around December 1689.

As well as a corking overture and some great operatic moments, only slightly dulled by Tate’s occasionally ditty-esque words, Purcell hits the operatic jackpot in terms of a tune at the moment Dido dies. ‘When I am laid in earth’, is an aria of melancholic beauty perhaps unsurpassed in all opera, let alone those written by English composers. 'Ah Belinda' comes in at a close second as a mournful classic.

Hailed as a great English Baroque composer, it's perhaps surprising that Dido and Aeneas was Purcell's only official opera. In the ten years that followed, he wrote a five other semi-operas, including Dioclesian in 1690, King Arthur in 1691, The Fairy-Queen in 1692, Timon of Athens 1694, and The Indian Queen 1695.