Anglia Ruskin to stage world premiere of Aeneas in Hell

Published: 4 April 2011 at 12:00

Dido & Aeneas prequel will be unveiled at Mumford Theatre in Cambridge

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Aeneas in Hell will receive its world premiere staging at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge from 24-28 May.

The opera has been devised by British librettist and music critic Paul Griffiths as a prequel to Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, and is based on a later episode in Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid. Aeneas in Hell uses spoken text to link the musical numbers, which come from theatre scores originally written by Purcell for other pieces.

Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, one of the earliest known English operas, relates the tragic story of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and her love for the Trojan prince, Aeneas, who abandons her in pursuit of the establishment of a new Troy.

Performed before Dido & Aeneas, but recounting Aeneas’s meeting with Dido after she has killed herself, the opera propels Aeneas towards a reliving of his crucial betrayal.

Librettist Paul Griffiths said:

“What inspired me was the big love affair between these two characters. He leaves, she kills herself and they then find themselves in hell and aren’t speaking, so it is a huge tragedy.

“I’ve only slightly changed the text from John Dryden’s translation of Aeneid. I used lines from that, spoken by the characters, and then made up lines of my own lines in ‘Dryden speak’. However, neither Dido nor Aeneas sings until Purcell’s opera.

“I think Aeneas in Hell has a future because it fills a huge gap. If you are going to stage Dido & Aeneas then you need something else because it only lasts for an hour.

“Purcell wrote so much music for the theatre that is never performed, so it provides an opportunity for that and also works as an obvious companion piece for Dido & Aeneas.”

Griffiths, who was a music critic for The Times before writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker, added:

“It is very exciting that this is the first time the opera has ever been staged. The opera had a concert performance at the University of Maryland in the States in 1995 but it hasn’t been performed since.

“I haven’t pushed it, which I could have done and really should have done, so bravo to Anglia Ruskin for rediscovering it.”

The problem of what to pair with Dido & Aeneas is a perennial one and conductor Paul Jackson, who is Head of Music & Performing Arts at Anglia Ruskin University, said:

“In a moment of fairly wild speculation, I wondered if anyone had actually written a sequel to Purcell’s opera.

“I started searching with the hope of finding what I imagined would be fairly obscure references to lost 17th-century operas. I was therefore quite taken aback when I found a reference to a 1995 American student performance of Aeneas in Hell by Paul Griffiths, which promised to fit the bill perfectly.

“A bit more investigation followed and an email to Paul – who was well known to me as a writer on 20th-century music – resulted in the complete libretto arriving in my inbox a few days later.

“Paul Griffiths’ work is masterful and forms the perfect accompaniment for Dido & Aeneas. We are delighted that Anglia Opera will be giving the first ever staged version of Aeneas in Hell.”

The staging of a double bill is always problematic and potentially costly. Both operas relay events which exist somewhere between the mythical and the real, and the presence of gods, witches, spirits  and a three-headed dog – Cerberus, scored for three voices – poses interesting staging problems.

Anglia Opera’s production, directed by Simon Bell, and designed by John Clarke from the Cambridge School of Art, conceives the two pieces as a single chain of events, with common characters and motifs occurring throughout.

“Our approach has been to make the archaic relevant, and to translate the 17th-century notion of tragedy into a form modern audiences can relate to,”

added Paul Jackson.

“We mustn’t forget that, at one level, the story concerns the sexual attraction felt between Dido and Aeneas, and the consequences of the choice between duty and personal fulfilment, a dilemma as relevant today as it was when Virgil wrote the Aeneid in the first century BC.”

Anglia Opera, which consists of outstanding young professional soloists combined with a full orchestra and chorus drawn from students in the Department of Music & Performing Arts, will be staging the double bill at Anglia Ruskin’s Mumford Theatre between 24-28 May, although there will be no performance on Thursday 26 May.

Tickets cost £12 (£10 concessions and £7 students) and are available by calling 0845 196 2320 or by visiting