Ahead of the Vache Baroque Festival performances of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, we caught up with director Thomas Guthrie…
Here’s a transcript of some of the things he told us.
‘Dido has been used, as have so many ancient stories, for political propaganda purposes through the history of time. No surprise there. As we know now more than ever, storytelling (for which you could also read “lying”) is at the heart of the way politicians persuade people of their value.
So Dido has been historically a slut, a witch, an angel, a goddess, depending on what you want to say about women in power. And that’s really interesting to me.
But who was Dido to Purcell?
The most current version of Dido – the story of the tragedy of the queen of Carthage – available to Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate in the late 17th Century was Christopher Marlow’s play from the late 16th Century. In that, reflecting the age, and the monarch, Elizabeth I, Dido is canny, cock-sure, and powerful.
And we shouldn’t forget that in Purcell’s time, Elizabeth was extremely fashionable. This goddess of the Renaissance, this dancer, poet, hunter, fierce politician…
So there is clearly this strong connection to Elizabeth.
And what of the music?
All Purcell’s theatrical music is extraordinary. But the lament at the end of the opera is rightly one of the most famous pieces of music, certainly to have come out of this country, and it’s known across the world and will continue to be known across the world.
Of course, it’s not the only beautiful thing that Purcell wrote, by a long chalk, but it is one of his greatest moments in the way it arrives, the way it emerges, the way it unfolds, the simplistic ground bass, the bed of strings.
There’s nothing like it in this piece and there’s not really a great deal like it in the rest of his work, although he used ground bass so often. The ground bass. Always the same powerful human effect of being in one place over and over again like a mantra but also experiencing something in that one place which is a journey, which is a transformation.
Why is it so great? Why did this story, this person, inspire such music from Purcell?
But: two things:
1. It is our job to try to tell the story in a way that makes sure that that music hits home as it’s supposed to. That human connection, I almost want to say that cosmic connection, through Purcell, through the humanity of Purcell. That connection, that relevance to everybody, that beauty, the way it touches anybody who hears it.
We have a responsibility to make that count as best we can. We have Katie Bray who is such a wonderful singer. We are blessed with that. That’s an important thing. We have wonderful musicians.
So we have to tell the story in a way that makes sense to us, that makes us so sympathetic, empathetic, with Dido’s situation that we don’t sit there and think: why is she killing herself? Why is she being so over-dramatic? What’s this sentimental nonsense, indulgence?
That’s happened to me before. I’ve sat through a number of versions of this story, of this music, of this piece, which leave me asking who is Dido? Why is she doing this?
We need to understand and be clear about what has driven her to this point where nothing else is possible. We have to make that available, that has to be our common intention, musicians, singers, creative team — to have a coherent way of telling the story that allows people to have their own reaction, of course, always, but which helps them understand and accept the decision Dido makes to take her own life.
Someone’s dignity. Someone’s sense of self so betrayed, so unbearably broken that to kill themselves is the right thing for them to do. The best solution.
That’s the first thing.
2. Then we need to explore Purcell’s point of view and what he was thinking about Dido, so we can understand and fathom every moment of this brilliant theatrical character.
I do not believe that he saw this as a simple love story.
I do not believe that as human beings who have relationships — as we all do — we quite buy that she just had her heart broken. And the evidence is there, built in to every single millisecond of the score, that this is also about power, the loneliness of power, and the enormous pressure of being a woman in power in a man’s world.
It’s interesting to know a bit about Purcell’s relationships with women in his own life, his wife Frances, the theatrical girls that he knew, it’s interesting his relationship with women. I recently directed a play by Clare Norburn where those relationships were explored in wonderfully imaginative ways. It reminds me of Mozart, his relationship with women, his wife Constanze, with his sister, with his mother.
What’s clear is that Purcell has a powerful affinity with this woman who feels alone, feels vulnerable to manipulation, who works so hard to avoid marriage and compromising herself in any way — let alone her people — but who sees in Aeneas, surely for the first time, having rejected so many suitors, a possibility.
I love that the Christopher Marlow version of the story has her confidently showing Aeneas and all his celebrity warriors from Troy, who are with him, the gallery of portraits of her failed suitors. All of them celebrities themselves and she shows him and she says: Do you want to be the next picture on my wall?
And Aeneas is understandably blown away by this power and this attractiveness!
So for me at the moment it’s fascinating that to Purcell — and to people of his time — Dido is Elizabeth. In the libretto she’s actually named: ‘Elissa dies tonight’. And of course we know that in the 1570s Elizabeth herself came very close to marrying a foreign prince (the Duke of Anjou — at the bottom of this article, you’ll find the poem Elizabeth wrote when that went wrong), something she found very difficult to accept.
That helps us understand that his opera is about this idea of the humanity of powerful people, the terrible loneliness of powerful positions, and it’s interesting, then to think about the witches in Dido and Aeneas. James I, who came immediately after Elizabeth, after such a dynastic reign, after this renaissance woman who had such influence on the culture of Britain and the future of Britain and the history of kings and queens — had to fight to establish a new order.
And one of the things he did was he put propaganda out there that powerful women were witches. Up until then, witches had been male and female and then he said women are witches and men are wizards. If you’re a magic man, you’re a wizard. Cool. If you’re a magic woman, if you’re a powerful woman, if you’re a creative woman, you’re a witch and you have to die. You have to be weeded out.
Incredibly powerful anti-female, anti-feminine, power statement, and of course we know that Elizabeth put his own mother to death (Mary Queen of Scots) and that all his life he remembered the dreams he had as a child of witches taking his mother away. He even inserted them into his translation of the Bible as instruments of Satan (the King James Version).
To me it’s not a surprise that the Sorceress, this female, powerful, dark figure in Dido and Aeneas, is given by Purcell to a bass. What an extraordinary thing to do. What an extraordinary reaction, connection, to what has happened in the last 100 years in the history of the country.
So there is actually a huge amount to help us make that lament work. In this wonderful new festival, as we gather here, many seeing a live performance for the first time in many months, I think we’ve got such a responsibility to give people a really genuinely wonderful time and I hope you have a wonderful genuine time with this piece.
We have to redouble our efforts to make things genuinely good, genuinely moving, because live performance art, live storytelling, live music, live greatness like this Purcell opera that we experience together in this place, is so precious.’
Thomas Guthrie was speaking to Esther Jackson.
‘On Monsieur’s Departure’, by Elizabeth I, following the breakdown of marriage negotiations between herself and the Duke of Anjou:
I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.
My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be supprest.
Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and so be kind.
Let me or float or sink, be high or low.
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love ere meant.
Dido and Aeneas performances at Vache Baroque Festival are on 4 and 6 September 2020. For more information about the festival: https://vachebaroquefestival.com/