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.
In light of this, I find the opera’s libretto falls a bit flat. The gods are acknowledged but don’t appear in the story; instead, we have a little coven of wicked witches, one of whom sends an elf that kind of looks like Mercury to tell Aeneas to get a move on. There’s no mention of Dido’s husband, her issues with border control, or anything else - we come into the opera at the point where she is trying her best to pretend that she doesn’t want to jump Aeneas’ bones. Her council, headed by someone called Belinda and seconded by a woman without a name, tell her to go for it - after all, an alliance between Troy and Carthage couldn’t hurt. So, after a tense wooing scene, they get it together and throw a charming party on a hillside as the witches plot Dido’s doom. This party gets interrupted by an almighty thunderstorm. Dido and her entourage take flight to the warmth of the palace, and Aeneas is intercepted by “Mercury” who tells him to sail for Italy.

Aeneas questions this for all of sixteen bars, then tells his crew to jump to it. As they hoist sails and prepare to leave, the witches watch and cackle in triumph. Aeneas puts his head round the door of the palace to say so long and thanks for all the sex, and finds Dido curiously distressed. He offers to stay behind, but the damage has been done. He leaves, his tail between his legs. Dido sings one final, poignant aria, and dies of...

Here we come to my first issue with the opera. What the hell does Dido die of? The last time I performed this, I asked this question of my director and he said “a broken heart”. I have never bought people dying of a broken heart - not unless it’s made clear earlier in the narrative that they have a stupendously weak constitution. As far as I can tell, Dido dies of a sulk. Dido dies because she has had a taste of the cock and can no longer return to her insignificant woman’s life as the queen of freakin’ Carthage . Dear librettist, are you kidding me?

My second issue is with Aeneas. I’ll get this out of the way: I have a real problem with Aeneas. Not just Purcell’s Aeneas, but Aeneas in general. The first we hear of him in recorded mythology is a cameo in Homer’s Iliad, where he stands, sword in hand, against one of the Greek heroes, and is promptly spirited away by Aphrodite when things start to look edgy. Hardly the very model of a modern major general. He then gets picked up by Virgil, who makes him into the heroic founder of Rome.

I use the word “heroic” in the loosest possible sense of the term, because Virgil’s Aeneas is a total dweeb. In the grip of a fearful storm, when better heroes (*cough*Odysseus*cough*) would set to reassuring their crew or taking an ‘all hands on deck’ approach, Aeneas leans over the side and whines about how his mummy is never there when he needs her. This pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the poem. Dido is totally kickass and I have no idea what she sees in him.

In a way, I actually prefer Purcell’s Aeneas. I mean, he’s still a dweeb, but we can’t argue that he gets more effective characterisation than Dido does. He barely even has an aria to himself. He’s as much a pawn in the witches’ game as she is. I still don’t understand what she sees in him, though - all the sense we get of him is that he can slay boars with his “bending spear”. Hurr hurr. He doesn’t seem to command authority the way Dido does, and though she talks about him a lot, the audience is never really shown what the fuss is about.

My third issue is with Belinda and “Second Woman” (seriously, that’s as much of a name as she gets). Who are these people? If we go by the letter of the Aeneid, Belinda is probably Dido’s sister, but here she could be anything - a sister, a mother, a cousin, a friend, a maidservant. Second Woman is still worse. She could be some random off the street who’s found her way into the entourage on account of her storytelling skills. She could be the bloody court jester, though if she is then she’s not so great at her job. In Ah! Forget My Fate, we’ve actually merged these two roles - that’s how indistinct these characters are.

And then, finally, there are the witches. Who are they? Again, they have no names. And what’s their beef with Dido? Why do they hate other people’s happiness so much? Aside from them being 17th century versions of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, I’m out of ideas on this one. They probably hate Christmas too, the soulless fuckers.

None of this means I hate the opera. For all its faults in storytelling, Dido and Aeneas is resplendent with beautiful music and powerful early harmonies. Whilst Dido is not necessarily top of most opera fans’ lists of tragic heroines, there is a good reason why this opera has stood the test of time. It is, after all, the earliest surviving example of its kind.

How it should have ended:

“Ah! Forget my fate,” she cried, and no sooner had the words flown from her lips than the light around her started to fade. She almost felt a pair of arms catching her, clasping her, easing her landing, almost heard the gasps of her courtiers around her. Then there was nothing but blackness in her eyes. The final sound she heard was the rattle of her own breath; a cadence, oddly musical, than slowed in time with the beat of her failing heart.

She was not aware of the courtiers chanting a mourning prayer around her, or of the silence that fell afterwards, punctuated by gentle sobs from her one remaining companion. The feeling that enveloped her as she came to, however, was one she knew well. She was surrounded by love - even now, now that he was gone. It seemed to her to be stronger than ever.

Dido awoke from her dead faint to gaze at the one person whose constant love and devotion had never, would never desert her. Her lips turned up at the corners, almost imperceptibly, as Belinda sobbed with relief and wiped fresh tears from her own and Dido’s cheeks.

Perhaps there was still hope after all.

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