Performing Purcell’s Operas

In the past month, I’ve gotten to perform in two dramatic works, King Arthur and Dido & Aeneas, by the English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Since I love Purcell’s theatre music, it’s been a good month. I also got to tick off “performing in Dido” from my bucket list, which I’d wanted to do since working as an opera trog for two weeks in 2011 for the Dartington International Summer School production. That was a great experience in terms of arts admin, but I remember sitting backstage waiting to hand over props to actors or some such, and thinking how I wished I was in the pit with the orchestra!

Dido is the earlier of the two works, having been first performed in the late 1680s, whilst King Arthur dates from the 1690s (1). Dido differs from King Arthur in that it is all sung, whereas King Arthur is considered a ‘semi-opera’, a work with sung and spoken parts. Apparently in King Arthur and his other semi-operas, Purcell upendsthe normal 17th-century relationship between spoken text and music […], the text serving as a narrative framework on which to hang a succession of visually spectacular and musically elaborate scenes involving the use of complex movable scenery or stage machinery’ (1). The performance I participated in with Leeds Baroque was semi-staged, so we had choir, orchestra, vocal soloists and actors, but no stage machinery I’m afraid! The most famous piece from the work is the Frost Scene, which is a supernatural masque summoned by the magician, Osmond. It has a distinctive rhythm to imitate shivering, accentuated by ponticello playing in the strings (playing with the bow closer to the bridge to give a raspier sound). The Frost Scene influenced later works such as Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ from the Four Seasons.

Dido is full of wonderful music and, at just under an hour in length, is often performed as a concert piece. I performed it with the Leeds Guild of Singers. The instrumental forces were just a string quartet and harpsichord so I found it very challenging but a lot of fun. The most well-known piece from this work is Dido’s Lament, ‘When I am laid in earth,’ where Dido sings about death and ponders her mistakes as Aeneas has left her to sail off and found Rome. It is distinguished by the bass line which is a deeply pathetic, chromatic ground bass. In the Dartington production, Dido was actually buried in earth by the chorus at the end and one of my jobs was to ‘unearth’ her and help her back up for the curtain call!

If you want to listen to either work, I’d recommend (all on Spotify) the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Academy of Ancient Music (if only for the divine singing of Emma Kirkby as Belinda) recordings of Dido. For King Arthur, the English Baroque Soloists recording is pretty good.

1. Peter Holman and Robert Thompson, ‘Purcell,’ Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press (Accessed: 1 July 2015) Available at:


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