Major Operas | Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell | Early & Middle Baroque

Although ostensibly ‘English’, Dido and Aeneas owes its ancestry to Italian and French operatic influences. Although the recitatives follow the rhythms and inflexions of the English language, they were clearly modelled on Italian monody.

Purcell followed the already established tradition of taking the plots of operas from ancient myth and legend. This one came from ancient Rome, as the hero, the Trojan prince Aeneas, was by tradition an ancestor of the Romans. The story for Dido and Aeneas was taken from Book Four of the Aeneid, a drama in verse by the Roman poet Virgil, who took 11 years to complete it.

Purcell’s opera comprises a prologue and three acts, with a libretto by Irish dramatist Nahum Tate. The first performance took place at Josias Priest’s School for Young Gentlewomen in Chelsea, in the spring of 1689. This work is not grand opéra, despite its elemental theme, but makes fairly modest vocal demands on its small cast. It is therefore likely that the first performers of Dido and Aeneas were the Chelsea schoolgirls. The initial public performance was given in London in 1700. The opera was revived in the late-nineteenth century.

Composed: 1683–84
Premiered: c. 1689, London
Libretto by Nahum Tate, after Virgil


The Trojan Prince Aeneas has arrived at Carthage, having been shipwrecked on his way to Italy, where he was bound by Fate to found a new Troy. Belinda, lady-in-waiting and confidante of Dido, Queen of Carthage, sees Aeneas approaching the castle and requests that the court present him with an entertainment. There follows an allegorical dance featuring Phoebus and Venus.

Act I

Dido is tormented by her love for Aeneas, but Belinda reassures her that the Prince returns her feelings. The courtiers, eager for a union between Carthage and Troy, offer further encouragement. Aeneas arrives with his attendants and declares his love for Dido, causing her to accept her own love for him. The act concludes with a triumphal dance.

Act II

A sorceress summons witches to her cave, and together they gleefully plot Aeneas’s departure, Dido’s ruin and the destruction of Carthage. Their idea is to send one of their kind, disguised as Mercury, to persuade Aeneas that the gods want him to leave Carthage immediately. They then conjure up a storm so that a royal hunting party will be obliged to return to the palace. Meanwhile, Dido and Aeneas are in the forest with a group of courtiers when the witches’ storm breaks, and they flee for cover. Aeneas is approached by ‘Mercury’, sent by the sorceress; he tells Aeneas that on Jove’s command he must leave Carthage. Aeneas accepts his destiny, but not without sorrow for having to leave Dido. The act ends with a witches’ chorus.


On the quayside, Aeneas’s men prepare for their departure with a sailors’ song. The sorceress and witches look on with much joy and laughter; they comment on the proceedings and further plan Aeneas’ death at sea, Dido’s suicide and Carthage’s...

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