Δευτέρα, 2 Ιανουαρίου 2012

Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Happy 2012 all around! One of my New Year resolutions is to try harder and write more often on my blog, because this year is going to be somewhat opera-deprived for me (financial crisis and other problems being the reason). So, hopefully, by writing about it, I will be able to cover the void somewhat... And the obvious thing is for me to - finally - start making the "Diaries" part a reality, for, you must have noticed that, I am not really keeping a diary yet... Anyway, I hope that I will be able to come up with a new entry, at least every week, and I hope that you will enjoy reading them.
Every diary has a first entry. Mine has had one very short, which had nothing to do with my first operatic experience, obviously. So, here goes nothing:
My first operatic experience came when I was 7. My mother, being a musicologist and working at the State Conservatory of Thessaloniki, made sure to take me to as many concerts she could. My father of course endorsed that decision, because he too is a music lover and a professor of Philosophy, so it was only natural that he would want his daughter to be well educated and cultivated from an early age. Therefore, when the Conservatory's lyric class produced Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" my mother dragged me along, to what was going to be my first and most traumatic experience with opera. Anyone acquainted with this particular work, knows very well that it is not "child - friendly" - the Queen dies in the end and there are some really mean witches involved as well. One would think that such tragic stuff should be introduced at a later age in a child's life. Anyway, I didn't get a say in the decision, and so I did go. I honestly do not remember anything about the music or the production we saw (of course, now, being older and mature, I know a great deal about the music and the story, but the production still eludes me - maybe I should try a hypnotist). What I do remember is being dragged to the dressing rooms to congratulate the singers, because we were acquainted with them through the Conservatory. Everybody back then knew me and I knew them. But, imagine a 7 year old's shock, when the singers she supposedly knew, were still dressed in their costumes! The big problem was with the witches... They were scary, I can tell you that much! I hid behind my mother and nothing could coax me out from my - very obvious - hiding place. I was terrified and I did make a fool out of myself. However, one cannot expect from a 7 year old to understand the difference between stage reality and Reality. Of course, nowadays, I can laugh about the whole incident; back then though, it didn't seem so funny... 
After this traumatic first experience, one would also expect that I would make a huge turn away from opera and opera singers in general, whether I knew them personally or not. It only makes sense that I would be scared for the rest of my life of opera! Somehow, however, and I don't know how, I kept going (to different operas, I have yet to see a "Dido and Aeneas" live again, although I have seen a production on DVD). Apparently the shock wasn't as great as I originally thought. And obviously, the next opera I was taken to wasn't as dramatic as the first, but more suitable for children. Apart from my great affection for the genre, two more things happened: first, I feel a particular affinity towards operas of the barock era and second I have an obsession with witches (more on that will come in future entries). 
I guess I now have to turn my attention to the opera's plot and music. "Dido and Aeneas" has caused a lot of debate among musicologists, particularly because some of them do not regard it as an opera, but a semi-opera. In my opinion, however, I do believe that "Dido and Aeneas" is an opera. Yes, it is relatively short, slightly over an hour, but Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" is also a short opera. Sometimes, in shortness there is perfection (as is the case both with Purcell's opera and "Wozzeck"). And why should the length of a work be the deciding factor for categorizing something? Size doesn't matter, right? Well, that is an entirely different subject... "Dido and Aeneas" is an opera for one very simple reason: it is sung throughout. There are no spoken dialogues, no interruptions in the music. It flows from beginning to end without a pause. 
And what beautiful music it is too! There is a lot of serious drama in the whole score. There are frightening moments as well, especially in the witches' scenes! Purcell makes an excellent use of various musical tricks, like the echoes to create an even greater effect with his language. Of course, there is also Dido's incredible lament at the end - "Thy hand Belinda... When I am laid in Earth" - that can change one's life! The simplicity and genius of this composition has been praised by musicologists and critics over and over again. I can only say, if you haven't listened to the music, simply do so and you will be convinced of the verity of the statements. There are a number of interesting recordings of the particular opera. What's even greater about it, is that it only takes up about an hour of your life, unlike Wagner for example. Surely you can spare an hour in your life...
As far as the libretto is concerned, well that was created by Nahum Tate according to Virgil's famous story in his "Aeneid". It is a tightly knit text, very poetic - it couldn't have been any different, because English tradition in poetry was already filled with great poets and Purcell only worked with the best, like John Dryden. The action moves forward seemlessly and the main characters are very well drawn. The changes in the setting, from the palace, to the witches' lair, to the hunting grounds, back to the palace again are very natural and do not raise any particular questions, as is the case in other operas. The addition of the witches - they do not appear in Virgil's poem - is a strike of genius, because it gives the composer the opportunity to show off his incredible skills. And, aside from that, it makes the whole opera distinctly British. Without the witches, the whole thing would have been dramatically less potent. I am not criticizing Virgil's version, obviously not. But Virgil didn't need the witches, because his hero in the poem was Aeneas, not Dido. By creating a counterpoint to Dido with the introduction of the witches, the whole abbandonment scene becomes even stronger. The witches desire vengeance for an unnamed wrong made to them by Dido, and they succeed in getting it. The sad Queen is a victim of supernatural powers, Love included... And whenever supernatural powers are involved, the plot thickens and the dramatic potency of the story increases significantly. All in all, its a great opera. It may not conform to the rules of the "lieto fine" - the happy ending - but these rules were not established yet. And anyway, it couldn't have ended differently, because otherwise, Rome would never have been founded! 
So, do take your time and listen to it, if you want. And if you have even more time, why not read the original poem as well? It is, after all, a classic of European literature... As is Purcell's version!

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