Based on Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido and Aeneas is Purcell’s only true opera, and his first composition which was written to be sung throughout. Having its first performance at the Josias Priest’s Boarding School for Girls in 1687, it is the perfect opera for student casts, as many of the vocal ranges are narrow and the voice-types are particularly flexible.
Dido, the queen of Carthage, falls in love with Aeneas, the Trojan prince, whilst offering him safe harbour on his journey home. A Sorceress, who hates Dido, plots to separate them by creating a storm and sending one of her servants, disguised as Mercury, to urge Aeneas to return home straight away, forsaking Dido. Aeneas readies his sailors and lets Dido know he must leave. Dido cannot bear losing him and kills herself, after offering one of the most famous English arias, Dido’s Lament (“When I am laid in earth”). In true Baroque style, the action is delivered in short recitative sections interspersed with songs, choruses, and dances.