Dido and Aeneas Synopsis

The Story of Henry Purcell's First Opera

Thomas Jones - Landscape with Dido and Aeneas
Landscape with Dido and Aeneas, inspiration for the Opera. Thomas Jones/Wikimedia Commons

Composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695)'s first opera and one of the earliest English operas, Dido and Aeneas was written around 1688 and premiered shortly after at the Josias Priest Girls School in London. The opera is based on the story of Dido and Aeneas from Book IV of Virgil's Latin Epic Poem,

Dido and Aeneas, ACT 1

Surrounded by her attendants in her court, Dido, Queen of Carthage, is inconsolable. Her sister and handmaiden, Belinda, tries desperately to cheer her up, but Dido is depressed, saying that she and peace are nothing more than strangers now. Belinda suggests to Dido that finding love will cure her grief, and recommends marrying Aeneas, a Trojan who has shown interest in marrying Dido. Dido fears that falling in love will make her a weak ruler, but Belinda points out that even great heroes find love. When Aeneas enters Dido's court, Dido still has reservations and greets him coldly. Finally, her heart warms up to the idea and answers his marriage proposal with a yes.

Dido and Aeneas, ACT 2

Deep within a cave, an evil sorcerer crafts a plan to bring destruction and calamity to Carthage and its queen, Dido. He calls in his apprentices and divulges his evil plot with instructions for each of them to carry out and execute. His most trusted elf will disguise himself as the god Mercury in order to tempt Aeneas into leaving Dido. Dido would be so grief stricken, she would die brokenhearted. A group of witches carefully listens to the sorcerer and casts a spell to bring a severe thunderstorm that would cause Dido and her hunting party to travel back to the palace after stopping in a peaceful forest grove.

Dido and Aeneas, along with their large hunting party, stop within the forest grove to rest after spending most of the day hunting. Belinda orders the servants to prepare a picnic for the royal couple using the game that was hunted earlier. As preparations are made, Dido hears thunder rolling in from the distance. Belinda immediately halts the hustle and bustle of the servants and orders them to pack up so that they can make it back to shelter before the storm arrives. After everyone leaves the grove, Aeneas stays behind to admire the grove's beauty. He is approached by the evil elf disguised as Mercury. Mercury instructs him that he must depart Carthage now and set sail to Italy in order to establish a new city of Troy. Believing the word of a "god," Aeneas obeys Mercury's command despite feeling remorse for having to leave Dido behind. After their conversation, Aeneas heads back to the palace to make his departing arrangements.

Dido and Aeneas, ACT 3

A fleet of Trojan ships is being prepared for embarkment by Trojan crewmen. Not long after, the evil sorcerer and his apprentices appear to monitor their plans progress. They are quite pleased to learn that they have been successful. The sorcerer announces his new plans for Aeneas - his ship will meet its doom while sailing on the ocean. The evil beings laugh in merriment and join one another in a dance.

Back at the palace, Dido and Belinda are unable to find Aeneas. Dido is overcome with dread. Belinda, to no avail, tries her best to console her. When Aeneas arrives, Dido voices her suspicions about his absence. Aeneas confirms but tells her he will defy the gods and stay with her. Dido rejects him, unable forgive his transgression against her. He was willing to leave her, and despite his resolution to stay with her now, she cannot get over it and orders him to leave. Dido's grief is too great, and she knows she will never recover. She gives into fate's cruelty and resigns herself to die from her broken heart. In the passing moments, Dido gives in to death and once departed, roses are scattered at her grave.

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