Friday, October 7, 2011

Dead heroines: Dido

Like many of its contemporary works, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas has quite an uncertain history. Popular theory suggests that it was written to be performed at a girls’ school by the school’s students. Scholars like to debate who played Aeneas and where all the tenors and basses came from, though the latter is probably redundant speculation considering that female tenors and basses exist. With our extensive cast of two, Better Strangers’ Aeneas will be played by a woman and sung in soprano tessitura. No surprises there, unless you’re new to this whole project. In which case, hi!

The most famous rendition of the story of Dido and Aeneas comes from Virgil’s Aeneid. As with much Classical mythology, our protagonists appear as pawns on the giant chessboard of the gods. Aeneas, son of Venus and last survivor of the ruling dynasty of Troy, has escaped to sea. After a whopping great storm, he washes up on the shores of Carthage in North Africa, where he is taken in by Dido, the queen of the state. Dido’s having kind of a rough time at the moment. She’s sworn eternal fidelity to the ghost of her late husband; she’s got a country to rule, subjects to feed, and neighbouring tribes to fend away from the city walls and her marital bed.

The gods - particularly Juno, everyone’s favourite antagonist - decide it would be lulzy to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas, incurring the wrath of the Furies and the neighbouring tribes in a single stroke of Aeneas’ heroic wang. When Aeneas leaves for Italy, prompted by Mercury (who stops his ears so he spends, like, a week completely blanking her, which is really uncool), Dido is bereft. She has broken her oath, she has no further excuse not to marry a local chieftain and surrender her kingdom, and her authority is in ruins. She chooses to take what’s left of her dignity and throw herself onto a huge pyre, which is the last thing Aeneas sees when he looks back towards Carthage.