“When I am laid, am laid in earth…” Dido’s aria, with a declining melodic line expressing her descending into the earth as she dies, is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Some of the younger Dutch will remember particularly a rendition of the aria by rock chick Anneke van Giersbergen on public television. The Dutch audience now has the chance to see a more classical interpretation as BarokOpera Amsterdam brings Purcell’s chamber opera to the stage in a short tour along the theatres.

Dido and Aeneas © Lennart Monaster
Dido and Aeneas
© Lennart Monaster

BarokOpera Amsterdam is a relative newcomer founded in 2000. With its own vision on authentic music theatre, the company makes productions where (unknown) early music played on copies of authentic instruments is combined with contemporary theatre. Musicological research of the works on the one hand and an original interpretation on the other has led to an extended version of Dido and Aeneas.

Dido and Aeneas was first performed in 1689 at Mr. Josias Priest’s Boarding School for Young Gentlewomen in Chelsea, with all roles sung by girls of the school. The libretto by Nahum Tate was based on the librettist’s play Brutus of Alba (1678) and Virgil’s Aeneid. The story tells of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, a Trojan hero. They fall in love, but an evil sorceress makes a plot to cause the downfall of Carthage, and with that, the destruction of Dido and Aeneas’ love. She sends a spirit to Aeneas with the fake order to found the city of Rome. Aeneas considers leaving, but decides to stay. When he tells Dido, she sends him away and dies out of sorrow.

Dido and Aeneas © Lennart Monaster
Dido and Aeneas
© Lennart Monaster

This is where the opera ends – but not in the version of BarokOpera Amsterdam. Instead, artistic and musical leader Frédérique Chauvet and director Sybrand van der Werf continue to tell Virgil’s story of Dido and Aeneas’ meeting in the underworld. The artistic team uses musical material from Purcell’s contemporaries such as Jean-Baptiste Matho, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Georg Friedrich Händel. With additional texts by Virgil in a Dutch translation, this leads to a rich mixture of English, French and Dutch singing and speaking. This, however, is not disturbing, because the second half (although it ends too abruptly) adds up naturally to what now has become the first.

BarokOpera Amsterdam’s Dido and Aeneas is the paragon of how to create a high quality performance with limited means. The scenery is minimalistic, and the basic costumes have pallid shades of primary colours. This version of the chamber opera does not require excessive sets or lavish costumes (although Charon’s costume, blue with glitter and an immensely long train that represents the river he watches from the second act is incredible. And so are the costumes of his jellyfishy dementor-like guards). The company, of only four men and two women, convincingly perform Purcell’s light-hearted music. Particularly strong is countertenor Jan Kullman, who amuses with his pleasant, solid sound. Caroline Cartens is convincing as Dido and presents a moving lament. Here, she gathers her last bit of strength as she calls out “Remember me”, only to follow with a soft “forget my fate”. (This performance inevitably lead to theatre-goers attempting to imitate her in the intermission, singing in a variety of keys except the right one!) But the strongest singer, as well as actress, was Wendy Roobol, who played a sweet, loyal Belinda, and surprised in a variety of other guises including those of sorceress, monster, and Peace. Her beautiful clear voice without vibrato was enchanting.

Dido and Aeneas © Lennart Monaster
Dido and Aeneas
© Lennart Monaster

The only flaw in this performance was the timing. Sometimes, when the music is still being played out, nothing happens: the actors just stand still on stage, even when this lack of action does not fit the lyrics (“Haste, haste to town!” – but they do not). And although the nine musicians make most of the theatre acoustics, they cannot manage to imitate the sound of a 40-player orchestra that normally performs the storm music (L’orage) by Matho that forms the opening of this work. Nonetheless, these are all negligible comments on a performance that makes the operatic Dido and Aeneas experience as complete as it has ever been.