Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas
Performed by 'The Companye'

March 18 and 19
Rust n Vreugd
Cape Town, South Africa

Reviewed by Sarah Ruden
University of Cape Town

Rust n Vreugd is Afrikaans for 'Rest and Joy,' and the carefully- restored eighteenth-century house and garden could not be more suitably named. As such it was an apt venue for The Companye, a group of professional musicians and singers which specializes in Baroque music and uses replicas of period instruments. These performances of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas in its original concert format, without staging, marked the three hundredth anniversary of Purcell's death.

The performers were technically superb, but, that said, I am at something of a loss. The Restoration mannerisms of the music and the language (e.g. the multiple bars of polyphonic 'Ho ho ho ho ho' which are Purcell's rendition of laughter) were a serious drawback for one not versed in the conventions. The barrier they presented made it difficult to give serious consideration to the aspect of the production which most interested me as a classicist: Nahum Tate's libretto, with its reinterpretation of Vergil's story.

Even so, the more relaxed critical engagement that a work like Dido and Aeneas inspires may actually be helpful for approaching what would otherwise be daunting literary and cultural questions. It did not take long for the composer's discomfort with Vergil's version of the Dido and Aeneas episode to register--which is not surprising. The tale of the shipwrecked hero befriended and beloved by the widowed queen, and her suicide when the gods force her lover to sail on in order to found the kingdom which will be Rome, was calclulated to pull even the Roman reader in two directions. Ovid in Heroides 7 gave Dido a gentler personality than Vergil had, and Juvenal claims that women with literary pretentions defended Dido in the course of intellectual conversation (Satires 6.434 ff.).

It took another sixteen centuries, however, for the role of the gods in the ill-fated affair to be eliminated rather than condemned, a decision which strips the heroine of all her original political and spiritual meaning. There is no hint in Purcell's version that Dido has behaved sinfully or even unwisely in her pre-nuptial haste, and the command to Aeneas to sail for Italy is a fabrication by malignant but otherwise unmotivated witches who call Macbeth to mind. Indeed, Purcell's Aeneas actually changes his mind and chooses to remain--only to be dismissed by Dido with courtly scorn for his waffling.

The heroine undergoes a drastic change of attitude before she dies, however. Her last words are the antithesis of the Vergilian Dido's curse on Aeneas and Rome:

May my wrongs create
No trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.
Clearly Purcell and Tate could not imagine a world in which there was any real conflict between love and duty. Without any plausible new conflict to replace the original one, the story becomes a series of conventional poses: doughty lover, mincing lady, epigrammatic maid, shrieking witches, chorusing hunters and sailors. Despite its melodic elegance, it is easy to dismiss this work as a piece of fluff-- especially when Aeneas intones such claptrap as 'Let Dido smile, and I'll defy / The feeble stroke of destiny.' Euphemism is literally apotheosized when the sailors are told to take leave of their 'nymphs on the shore.'

The view that Purcell's music is seldom strong enough to overcome the inanity of his lyrics is a common one. But Purcell's world-view, if not his taste (as far as these can be separated) is familiar and appealing. When Aeneas protests that he leaves by decree of the gods, Dido replies

Thus hypocrites, that murder act
Make heaven and the Gods
The Authors of the fact.
Few modern readers of the Aeneid have not, on some level, reached a similar judgment of Aeneas' motives. Hardly any of us are convinced that even founding a civilization is a good enough reason for breaking a woman's heart. Greek and Roman mythology is poor in stories with messages more congenial to the modern West, let alone with romantic happy endings. It is small wonder that classical themes all but disappeared from opera by the nineteenth century. The biggest laugh in the film 'Amadeus' comes when Mozart is made to say that gods and heroes in opera sound as if they 'shit marble.' Like many laughs, it shows the separateness of cultures. It affirms who and what we are.

Sarah Ruden
University of Cape Town

(Other Places, Sarah Ruden's new book of poetry and translations, will appear from Justified Press in May.)