“In a good production,” writes Peter N. Skrine in his book The Baroque, Henry Purcell’s masterpiece Dido and Aeneas “can convey a quintessence of the Baroque vision of love voluptuous and tragic, and set against a background of human destiny and natural forces.” This may truly be said of the current production by Mason opera, the student opera company at George Mason University. This division of GMU’s well-regarded music department stages two operas per year: one a short work in the autumn and one a longer work in spring.
This fall the production is Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas, with its theme of the Trojan War – or more specifically a Romeo-and-Juliet-style tragic love story which takes place in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Upon the defeat of ancient Troy and its burning to the ground, the Trojan warrior Aeneas is given the mission by Jupiter, king of the gods, to reestablish Troy with his followers in a new location. The location where he lands ultimately is Rome. Dido and Aeneas has as its source the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil’s epic poem admired by the Romans for masterfully linking, through great art and popular mythology, Rome’s origins to the city of Troy of remote antiquity.
Purcell’s opera — considered by many the greatest of English Baroque operas — concerns itself with the incident in which Aeneas, headed for what will become Rome, stops in Carthage. Here he and the Carthaginian Queen Dido fall in love. Jupiter, angered by Aeneas’ delay, sends Mercury, Messenger of the Gods, to urge Aeneas on to reestablish Troy. To do so, he must leave Dido, and tragedy results. “I who wept for Dido slain!” wrote the early church father Augustine, himself educated in Carthage — testimony that this sentimental story was the Romeo and Juliet of the ancient Roman world and its provinces.
Purcell reworked this material into a musical drama not for the opera house, but for a girls’ school in Chelsea: there are twists in the opera to appeal to such a venue, as well as concessions to tastes of the time and perhaps to the ever-residual faint yet clear presence of the pre-Christian culture of northern Europe. A sorceress, for instance, enters the picture, enticing a “trusted elf” to impersonate Mercury in order to destroy Dido. Dido’s demise is altered from Virgil’s tale (suicide) to something a little more oblique. While Purcell designed his most famous work for the Baroque Age’s preferences and predilections, it is in some ways a highly accessible work for an audience today: the text is in English, the opera runs a bit over an hour, and the orchestra is relatively small and intimate.
Stage director and voice professor John Aler’s Mason opera production is outstanding, with a vibrant orchestra (conducted by Joseph Walsh) of two violins, a viola, a cello, a bass, a harpsichord, and the interesting and rare theorbo, an instrument in the lute family. Scene designer April Jay Vester’s marble-like sets representing Dido’s palace and trimmed borders of waves and trees representing the sorceress’ woods-like cave and the grove outside the palace are lovely. What is more, they are historically based off of still-surviving Roman-era mosaics depicting the ancient tale. The costumes of Laurel Dunayer, including beautiful gowns for Dido and her ladies in waiting, Roman military apparel for Aeneas, and a black glittery dress for the sorceress, are likewise effective in evoking the centuries-old stylistics of both the opera and the story.
Last but by no means least for an opera, we come to the on-stage performers: There are two separate casts, each combined of both undergraduate and graduate students at George Mason University. The casts will differ according to which production one sees, variously at Harris Theatre (on the George Mason campus) or Old Town Hall in Fairfax. The main characters in the casts are as follows: Daniel J. Smith / Dylan Toms as Aeneas; Ashlyn Rock / Karen Smith as Dido; Crystal Golden / Christie Phillips as Dido’s confidante Belinda; Kaitlin Lee / Jenete St. Clair as the sorceress; and, Emily Stedman / Sarah Grace Fitzsimmons as the Spirit in the Form of Mercury.
Standout performances I saw included Dylan Toms forcefully singing and acting his role as his character Aeneas realizes he must leave his beloved Dido in order to fulfill his quest to refound Troy. There was also Kaitlin Lee as the sorceress beautifully intoning “Wayward Sisters, You That Fright,” a scene anticipating the Queen of the Night and her train in Mozart’s Magic Flute of a century later. Finally, Karen Smith as Dido performs in beautiful lament the swan song of Dido, “When I Am Laid in Earth.” The chorus is also to be praised, sounding as sweet and beautiful as an English church choir, perhaps to greatest effect in the opera’s close “With Drooping Wings.”
We can do no better than returning to the quote which opens this article, encouraging audiences to enjoy Dido and Aeneas as Mason Opera successfully realizes Purcell’s “Baroque vision of love voluptuous and tragic . . . against a background of human destiny and natural forces.” This all too short run ends on December 2. More information on performance times may be found at: https://www.fairfaxva.gov/government/parks-recreation/cultural-arts/arts-events/mason-opera