Premiered at Josias Priest’s London girls’ school in the late 17th century, Henry Purcell’s beloved tragic opera Dido and Aeneas is, some say, cruder and simpler than the great British Baroque composer’s typical work because it was intended for performance by children. Even so, Purcell and Nahum Tate’s retelling of Book IV of the Aeneid in which Virgil’s hero loves and leaves Dido, the queen of Carthage, has proven enduringly popular, and has yielded a timeless hit single in the power-ballad aria “Thy Hand Belinda…when I am laid in earth,” commonly known as “Dido’s Lament.”
While Purcell and Tate drew from the mythic well springs of the Western canon, they were playing at topical allegory as well, with the subtlety required of anyone who would keep his head in that turbulent political climate. Dido and Aeneas is often thought to parallel and illuminate the political and religious unrest and antagonism of late-17th-century England and the overthrow of the Catholic monarch James II by his protestant daughter Mary and son-in-law William of Orange. In this allegorical interpretation, the opera’s witches and sorceresses represent the seductions of Catholicism, and Dido the betrayed British people.
It sounds simple enough on the surface, but it almost certainly isn’t. When the Vassar College Music Department presents Dido and Aeneas on Saturday, November 7 at 8 p.m. in Skinner Hall, the performance will be preceded at 7 p.m. by an illuminating companion lecture by early music experts Frans and Julie Muller. Both events are free and open to the public.
The Mullers’ authority on the work is multidisciplinary. Julie Muller taught English and American Literature at the University of Amsterdam. She has written extensively in Dutch and English on English song texts from the Renaissance to the present. Frans Muller is a retired interior architect and set designer. For more than 30 years his focus has been on historical theater and theater design research, with his main interest being in 17th-century English opera. Both have written about Baroque theater. Their talk, “Setting the Scene for Dido,” will explore the nature of Baroque opera, with animations, and both the place of Dido and Aeneas in Purcell’s oeuvre and its sociopolitical significance at the time.
The performance of Dido will feature the Vassar College Choir, with Vassar students in the solo roles, and an orchestra comprised of faculty members Linda Quan and Marka Young, alongside student instrumentalists. The conductor is Christine Howlett, director of choral activities, with stage direction by music lecturer Drew Minter.
Vassar College is located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie. For more information, visit www.vassar.edu.
Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Saturday, November 7, 8 p.m., free, Skinner Hall, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie; www.vassar.edu.