Having now experienced both, I can't help but think perhaps Cavalli's La Didone and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas ought to switch titles. Though she has the title role, Cavalli's Dido has to battle her way through crowds of other characters, mortal and divine, and some of whom she never meets (the first act is set at the fall of Troy) to make herself heard. In the original (the Harmonia Mundi recording alters this, and begs indulgence - easily granted - for having done so) she doesn't even have the final, tragic word. No, instead she marries Iarbus, the man she's been steadfastly scorning throughout the opera, both pre- and post-Aeneas. A happy ending? For Dido? Come now. That's rather like having all the Trojans suddenly believe Cassandra: it might be warm-and-fuzzier but it's still wrong. Elsewhere the libretto sticks more closely to its source but the effect - coupled with Cavalli's relentlessy declamatory word-setting - is rather static: full of characters but rather devoid of life.
On the other hand, though Purcell's Dido & Aeneas puts both characters into the title, his is a far more Didocentric opera. For a title character, his Aeneas is allowed incredibly little time on stage: for most of the opera, which isn't particularly long anyway, we see either Dido or the malicious creatures conspiring against her. Personalising the piece even further, the libretto for Dido & Aeneas begins right in the middle of Dido's lovestruck self-torture, with no mention of the fact that this passion was brought about not by Dido herself (who would otherwise presumably have remained boringly chaste in honour of her dead husband, as promised) but by Venus and the rapscallion Cupid, for their own Aeneas-loving purposes. Read Vergil and it's up for debate just how responsible Dido is for her own disastrous lovelife; in Dido & Aeneas all we see is a woman in love and feeling very guilty about it.
One of the aspects I most adore about Purcell's Dido & Aeneas is the immediacy of its opening. No prologues or hopelessly contrived exposition. Just, all of a sudden, two women talking about the man one of them has fallen - against her wishes - quite desperately in love with. We witness Dido's anguish not at its most determined, but the point where that determination beings to evaporate. Belinda tells her to cheer up and enjoy herself. The chorus agrees. Still, though there is no happiness for the couple anywhere in the opera. We barely see them together. There is no love duet. Dido knows Aeneas' fate lies elsewhere than Carthage; his claim that "Aeneas has no fate but you!" is a rather foolish and naive in a world so tangibly and visibly ruled by the gods. Then our lovers go hunting and have a deep and meaningful moment in a cave; Aeneas very dashingly - and *ahem* Freudianly* - captures a monster "upon my bending spear"; the Sorceress and her cohorts brew up a storm and various nasty things and it's all downhill from there. In the proper Aeneid it really is Mercury who reminds Aeneas that he's not in any way doing as he was told; here, presumably because witches and fairies are far more interesting, it's a nasty little goblin who takes the form of Mercury. Though in a sense it doesn't much matter: Aeneas knows, deep down, that he ought to have scarpered some time ago and as soon as somebody else suggests it, his conscience takes over.
So that before the love story which the title anticipates has even got underway, it's finished. The confrontation with Dido is one of my favourite scenes and almost like something straight from TV. Aeneas announces he's leaving, against his will of course: it's all the fault of fate. Excuses! retorts Dido:
Thus on the fatal Banks of Nile,
Weeps the deceitful crocodile
Thus hypocrites, that murder act,
Make Heaven and Gods the authors of the Fact.
Fine then, says Aeneas. If you're that upset I'll defy Jove (good luck) and stay. Oh no you don't, replies Dido: "No, faithless man, thy course pursue...For 'tis enough, whate'er you now decree / That you had once a thought of leaving me." Crestfallen, he does of course depart, she wilts immediately, sings her famous Lament and dies.
I've only seen Dido & Aeneas once and I've never heard a recording, but I've thumped my way through the vocal score more times than I can count and I'm besotted with it. Dido is somebody whose story captured my imagination back in high school, reading the Aeneid for Bursary Classics. I never liked Aeneas anyway, but I liked him even less after he came, saw and ruined Dido's life. In theory, of course, if I blame the gods for Dido's miserable state then they're responsible for Aeneas' conduct too but all the same I never really could forgive him. Nor the cloyingly cute son, for that matter.
Now the thing is, if you want to talk about fidelity to the Aeneid, Cavalli's La Didone comes a whole lot closer than Dido & Aeneas. The latter is bursting at the seams with seventeenth century creations: witches, fairies, lewd choruses of sailors and so on. Belinda is not Anna. Without a doubt a sizeable portion of the action in Purcell's opera is conceived with musical opportunities or spectacle in mind. Yet somehow it's the Purcell and not the Cavalli which - musically and dramatically - captures, for me, the melancholy human spirit of the Dido and Aeneas story. No matter how many Meanwhile, On Mt Olympus... scenes appear, theirs is an intimate and personal encounter. Dido lives and breathes and suffers. Her abandonment is required by fate and Aeneas is theoretically more or less heroic for obeying the gods' commands: but in the experience of it, it's impossible to feel like this is in any way a happy ending for either party. Dido, who was a strong, successful and basically happy widow, is brought crashing to earth by the appearance of a foreign prince. Turandot at least has the somewhat dubious comfort of an inevitably tense relationship with the man who brought about her downfall; Dido is not even allowed that. Abandoned, she gives up completely, and dies. In Vergil it's a planned and ceremonial death upon a funeral pyre. In Tate's libretto she simply loses the will to live and slips away. It is the saving grace of Harmonia Mundi's 1998 premiere recording of Cavalli's La Didone that the libretto's forced happy ending is removed: as in Purcell, the opera ends with Dido's lament and the implied death which follows it.
Perhaps not the Cavalli's only saving grace, however. It has one other advantage, the reason I bought the recording, the name you might have thought I'd gone a suspiciously long time without mentioning. Cavalli's Didone is sung of course by Yvonne Kenny, who overcomes the role's dramatic limitations to an impressive degree, as passionate and as wrenchingly sincere in her pianissimo depression as in her fiery fits of anger. While remaining completely within the recording's "authentic" framework, her Didone comes across as remarkably modern. The rest of the cast sing well enough, often quite beautifully, but always with a slight sense that the antiquity of both the music and the story let them off the hook a little when it comes to their characters' emotional lives. But Yvonne's Didone does no such thing: her suffering, her uncontrollable rage, her scorn, her desperate adoration for a man she knows is gone, her suicidal resignation - all these emotions, and all the more complex and subtly-shaded ones which come between - are as persuasively and as powerfully captured here, in the earliest music I've ever heard Yvonne sing, as they were in her La voix humaine for Opera Australia: one of the most recent works I've heard her in. A testament to her staggering talent.
Cavalli's La Didone, then, is not a piece I've fallen for: both musically and dramatically its appeal to me is seriously limited. Yvonne, because I'm a mad completist, is the reason I bought it; and Yvonne, because she's terrifyingly good, is the reason I'm glad I did. In all other respects, my affections remain firmly with Purcell's Dido & Aeneas, whose musical richness (Purcell really did have the best way with a tune) and emotional depth simultaneously delight and upset me. I get excited and, as you can see, talkative just thinking about it. I've been a fool for Purcell ever since The Fairy Queen introduced us. And, to keep this paragraph going in circles, I encountered The Fairy Queen on account of Yvonne. All of which makes me think that what I really would like is Yvonne Kenny as Purcell's Dido. Except that then, of course, you'd probably never shut me up.