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Dido, Queen of Carthage

Rosa Lamoreaux, sopranoI raved about one of those neglected 17th-century opera composers, Antonio Caldara, when Cecilia Bartoli brought her Opera Proibita recital to Washington. Another prolific composer whose operas are now mostly forgotten is Francesco Cavalli ( Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni; he took the name of the noble patron who brought him to Venice as a teenage singer). We owe most of the authoritative information we know about him to three musicologists, Lorenzo Bianconi, Jane Glover, and Ellen Rosand.

This weekend, Washingtonians will have the rare opportunity not only to hear a live performance of one of this great composer's complete operas, La Didone (Teatro S. Cassiano, 1641) but also to see it in a full staging with Baroque orchestra. Any fan of opera or early music is hereby charged, in the name of the Ionarts honor code, to make it to one of the three performances this weekend (June 16 and 17, 8 pm; June 18, 2:30 pm), at American University's Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre. The production will feature members of the pride of Baltimore, Ignoti Dei Opera Company, with a cast of fine singers, including D.C. favorite Rosa Lamoreaux in the role of Venus.

Poor Dido's story comes from the first four books of The Aeneid (see also John Dryden's classic English translation). Her tragedy, as with all things in ancient Greece and Rome, was the fault of the gods. Venus sent Cupid to make Dido love Aeneas, who was washed up on the shores of Carthage. As Virgil recounts in The Aeneid, Aeneas leaves Dido once he is well again, and the queen, distraught, kills herself (Book IV). That was the crucial part of Dido's story, told also by Ovid in his perplexing work Epistulae Heroidum, known in English as the Heroides, letters from mythological heroines to their unfaithful lovers. The seventh letter is Dido Aeneae (see also James M. Hunter's English translation). Cavalli's La Didone, set to a libretto by Giovan Francesco Busenello, is the first of many operatic adaptations -- Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689), Metastasio's Didone abbandonata (set to music by Porpora, Handel, Jommelli, Piccinni), Berlioz's Les Troyens (1858) -- not to mention Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragedy of Dido Queene of Carthage (1594).

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Francesco Cavalli, La Didone, Yvonne Kenny, Judith Howarth, Thomas Hengelbrock, Balthasar Neumann Ensemble (released on September 10, 1998)
I confess that the only music I have heard before, I think, are the excerpts played by some of the musicians at a press roundtable introducing the production on Monday, at the Istituto Italiana di Cultura. The opera has been performed in a few places since the 1950s but is hardly common. What I heard was the best of what early 17th-century Italy had to offer in the lament of Cassandra (Act I) and the first lament of Dido (Act III), sung by a beautiful Bonnie McNaughton with an affecting, rose-hued soprano voice. The tall and dulcet-voiced tenor Aaron Sheehan gave an equally fine impression of his role, Aeneas, with the lullaby he sings to try to make Dido go to sleep before he slips out the door. Finally, countertenor Brian Cummings sang part of Iarbo's duet with McNaughton, from the end of the opera, when he prevents Dido from committing suicide. This opera, thanks to the unavoidable convention of the lieto fine, rewrites Virgil so that Venus cleans up the mess she created (highly unlikely) and Didone and Iarbo are united in joyous marriage. The orchestra will include strings, cornetti, and in the continuo group, viola da gamba, lirone, harpsichord, organ, theorbo, and guitar, presumably in various combinations.

There is, to my surprise, a complete recording, made from a live performance based on a significantly altered version of the libretto. Given the fact that the title role in this recording is none other than Yvonne Kenny, we could expect blogger Sarah Noble to have a post about it, comparing La Didone and Dido and Aeneas, at Prima La Musica, Poi Le Parole (March 15, 2006). Depending on how much I like the opera this weekend, I may be writing a review about the recording myself in the near future. Please, dear readers, go and hear La Didone so I have someone to argue with.


Akimon Azuki said...

I have booked the tickets for Friday and am very fired up- I love the good ol' Harmonia Mundi recording of Cavalli's another opera, Calisto, but Didone will be my first live outing. Can't wait! TGIAW (thank God it's already Wednesday!)
I have been trying to keep an eye on the Ignoti Dei for a while, but if it wasn't for Ionarts, I might have missed this DC performance... wielkie dzieki!
Surely the sophisticated DC crowd will turn up in large numbers for this Baroque gem- this is not an "all Puccini all the time" type of town, right?

Charles T. Downey said...

Monika, we appreciate you heeding the Ionarts call. Come the revolution, there will be a place for you. :-)

Anonymous said...

Dear IGNOTI DEI OPERA (great!),
you touched one of the greatest masterpiece:
LA DIDONE by Busenello.
Did you preserve the final scene or did you cut it like in the awful German version of some years ago?
I study Busenello's text since several years, and I published free on my website:(
the first modern edition of this libretto.
I believe the most important thing about this text is that it's perfectly loyal to Virgil's text.
Of course most of the critics and professors think Busenello "changed" Virgil's final of the story but indeed the Great INCOGNITO strictly
followed his Master Virgil.
I'm not very much loved from some Professors, but if you like so, I'll be glad to exchange ideas with you.
I'm Italian, please forgive my sad English.
And of course take a look of my website about Queen Dido:

I'm so sorry I am not in Washington to see your show.
Thank you all the same and come to Italy soon!
Salvatore Conte