A Night at the Opera: Dido and Aeneas

The Southern California Classical Society in conjunction with The History of Western Thought had the opportunity to send a small coterie to investigate just what San Diego State University’s first Opera of the season had to offer. Staged in their Smith Recital Hall which seats 300, but probably had about 150 tonight, the theatre is small, intimate, and lit well for the occasion. The opera, “Dido and Aeneas”, is itself a modernization by Henry Purcell of the original Dido and Aeneas account from Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid, and the opera we saw was a modernization of that 1689 riff on the classical love and loss story. The major difference between Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Vergil’s account, is that Purcell adds a sorceress who is bent on the destruction of Dido rather than unhappy fortune being the main culprit, and the SDSU opera house, and its newly appointed director, Dr. Julie Maykowsi, added a whole coven (who truly stole the show).

The original story featuring the tragic love of Dido and Aeneas was Vergils’ Aeneid from the first century BCE, one of the only written Roman epics still extant, and considered by some a work surpassing Homer and by others a rank work of imitation and political propaganda for the newly coronated Caesar Augustus. In the story, Aeneas and the Trojans have spent seven years at sea after their precious Troy has fallen by the mechanations of Minerva and Juno. After a particularly devastating storm sent by Juno, the Trojans wash up on Carthage in Northern Africa, where Dido offers them refuge. During their first night together, Aeneas regales the queen with stories of the fall of Troy and his and his people’s sufferings on the high seas. He also mentions that from three distinct and trustworthy sources (Creusa, his former wife, Helenus, the prophet (with the help of Apollo), and Celaeno the Harpy) that he must go on to Ausonia or Italy (Hesperia). One might imagine that both Aeneas and Dido would accept the overwhelming evidence of his need some day to depart, as was fated, as an intelligent reason not to enter into any sort of relationship, but unbeknownst to Dido, Venus, goddess of love, sent her son Eros/Cupid to prick her with an arrow which infatuated her with Aeneas and all things Aeneas.

Juno and Venus then conspire to “wed” Aeneas and Dido by means of causing a storm during a hunt. They cause the storm, Dido and Aeneas consummate their blooming feelings for each other, and thus begins Dido’s descent. For Aeneas is visited not once but twice telling him that he must get on with his fate and not trust in a Carthaginian woman. It may be appropriate here to list a few of Dido’s accomplishments neglected in the performance. She is no simply politician but a gallant woman whose brother, Sychaeus, killed her husband, Pygmalion, in a play for power. Learning this from the shade of her husband, she used a store of hidden and buried gold to found her own city, Carthage, with those supporters still loyal to her murdered husband. She has raised the walls and given the city laws, so she is no mean figure, and certainly no damsel in distress. Certainly, the performance does make her initially a “strong” female lead in that Dido has attained political power and at first rebuffs the advances of Aeneas, but in the wake of him leaving her, she simply dies of heart-break. She is not even granted the grand gesture of impaling herself on the very sword which Aeneas left behind, in her chambers, symbolically portraying how deeply his leaving her cut, though, seemingly, he had no choice but to leave.

So the opera’s “modernized” plot, makes an unfortunately bleak statement of feminine nature though the brochure broadly proclaims: “the intent is not to make a political statement but, in fact, the opposite.” One, however, cannot help but observe certain political ramifications of Dido, the first U.S. president, being wooed by an Italian politician and then immediately dying, by heart-break, once he leaves. She is hardly a feminist hero, or even a particularly strong woman in general. One might have imagined that in making the title “Dido and Aeneas” and giving Dido more time on the stage that the story would relate the difficulties and struggles of a modern career oriented woman balancing her personal life with her professional life–not a caricature of this resulting in a woman completely wilted, and ultimately so reliant on the love of a man–whom she had just met–to die OF HEARTBREAK when he leaves. We may leave aside, for a moment, the fact that the instigator of the violence against Dido is herself a woman, a sorceress, who for seemingly no reason hates and wishes for the destruction of Dido, thus absolving Aeneas, the man, of all his blame. One might almost imagine the sorceress to symbolize Dido’s own darker nature leading her towards her own self-destruction. Is this our modern idea of woman?! At least in Vergil’s play Dido is absolved of all blame: “For as [Dido] died a death that was not merited or fated, but miserable and before her time and spurred by sudden frenzy, Proserpina had not yet cut a gold lock from her crown, not yet assigned her life to Stygian Orcus.” (Vergil, Aeneid. 4.957-961. Mandelbaum tr.)

This bleak picture of femininity aside, a far better example of a strong woman in a leadership position comes from 5th century BCE (458) Athens. A strong contrast to the message sent by this opera is the portrayal by Aeschylus of Clytemnestra, wife and murderess of Agamemnon, in his 4th century play The Libation Bearers. Here a strong and manipulative Clytemnestra, claiming to work on behalf of justice, maneuvers her lover to kill her husband to avenge her daughter who was sacrificed due to mitigating circumstances without the consent of the mother. Though Clytemnestra is ultimately slain by her son, he now avenging his own slain father and asserting his claim to his father’s throne, she cuts a powerful and effective figure. Nowhere is the suggestion that she was incapable of ruling, simply that her right came at the cost of another’s. Dido, however, in “Dido and Aeneas” is a pale shadow of Clytemnestra, and even a pale shadow of the Dido from Vergil’s Aeneid.

The implications of the plot and its hurried construction behind us, the performances of the three leads: Dido (Stephanie Ishihara), Belinda (Amanda Olea) (Why was she not named Anna?), Aeneas (Nicholas Newton), and Sorceress (Latifah Smith). The Coven of witches also added a much needed comic and vibrant element to the story. So, just as the Sorceress and her inclusion root the performance in a squarely anti-feminine dialog with itself, so did, however, Latifah Smith completely steal the show. She had style, panache, and true verve on the stage. She was cool, and she was strong, and she sang with power and poise all the while conveying a diverting malevolence. In general, the singing was excellent by all members, and given that they practiced together for about 1/3 of the time generally considered necessary to put on a live show, the vocals were on point, and had there been no plot, or motion, and this just been a choral performance, it would have been quite good, though the words would have made little sense (which remained true with a plot, largely).

On the point that the production was rushed and thrown-together, the director herself, Dr. Julie Maykowski, admitted to being hired on to direct the show after its theme was chosen and that she only had 8 hours of rehearsals when usually she would have 30-50. She also admitted to having a vision of using ballet-performers to move the action of the play forward rather than the chorus itself, which was in constant, yet entertaining, motion. When during the question-answer period after the show I asked why they chose such an ancient theme, hoping to hear that they wanted to preserve the classics in a modern form, I was disappointed to hear that Dr. Maykowski actually entered the scene with the production already chosen. So, rather than seeing a show which represented a noble, though ultimately failed attempt, to represent ancient patrician values, and the contemporary continued struggle with relationship, emotion, and duty to family and country, we had a hodge-podge and thrown-together production with some nice singing. It was entertaining, but if you are not a student ($10 tickets for them), spend your $20 elsewhere this weekend.

*This has been a Review presented by the Southern California Classical Society together with The History of Western Thought Thinkers Group.