Henry Purcell was revered as “Orpheus britannicus” during his lifetime and was a sought-after composer of music for the theatre. With Nahum Tate, who also had a theatrical background, he wrote only one opera, Dido and Aeneas, but by the end of the 17th century this opus had already become one of the most significant works of the baroque period. The libretto in three acts is based on one of the most famous love stories in literature. Dido, the legendary Queen of Carthage, has fallen in love with the hero Aeneas. But the happy union of the two lovers is prevented by the machinations of wicked witches. A fabricated command from the gods causes Aeneas to leave Dido: he has supposedly been given the task of founding a new Troy in Italy. But Dido cannot live without Aeneas
and when he goes she wants to die. She expresses the pain she feels in her broken heart in her famous lamento.
The development and first performances of the opera are surrounded by conjecture and legend. The first reliably documented performance was at Josias Priest’s school for “gentlewomen” in Chelsea. However, musicologists
are loath to accept that such an important opera was written for a girls’ school and suspect that it was performed earlier at court. So far, though, no definite record of another performance during Purcell’s lifetime has been found.