From Antony and Cleopatra to Bill and Hillary, we are fascinated by romantic couples whose rocky relationships play out on the world stage. These are love affairs in which the personal truly is political, where spats and betrayals can shape the fates of entire nations. The first couple to embody this dynamic was the mythical Dido and Aeneas. She was Queen of Carthage; he was a survivor of the Trojan War, whose escape from a disastrous battle brought him to her shores. Their affair was intensely passionate, but he was torn between his love for her and his perceived destiny, which was to travel on and found the capital of a mighty new civilization: Rome.
Love versus duty, raising a family versus building an empire — these timeless themes resonate with us deeply, as they always have. Virgil was the first to write down the legend, as part of his Aeneid, but many major authors and artists have reinterpreted it over the centuries. Over the next two weekends, Westmont College will present in repertoire one of The Aeneid’s best-known adaptations, Henry Purcell’s one-act opera Dido and Aeneas, and one of its most obscure, Christopher Marlowe’s early play Dido, Queen of Carthage. Both will be directed by John Blondell, who noted that the two could hardly be more different. “To see the way the [respective creators] play with the material — what they leave in, what they leave out, what they change — is fascinating,” he said. “The opera is refined and elegant; there’s the kind of artificiality you find in baroque music. Marlowe is the opposite: It’s raw and edgy. There are jarring, abrupt changes. I want it to provide a little shock to the senses.”
Blondell, who is known for visually inventive productions of the classics, has been adding opera and musical theater to his repertoire since his award-winning 2014 staging of The Pirates of Penzance. Already committed to directing Dido and Aeneas, he was looking for a companion piece when, last March, “I saw on my Facebook news feed that the Globe company [from London] was producing Dido, Queen of Carthage with its young-players company. I thought, ‘What?!’”
A quick Internet search revealed that the play was probably a product of Marlowe’s university years. Its first major London production in decades took place in 2009; critic Michael Billington of the Guardian called it “a forgotten dramatic landmark” that “has about it the authentic whiff of tragedy.” The play was apparently written around 1585; Purcell’s opera premiered 104 years later. The differences between the two texts tell us a lot about how societal mores and expectations changed over the course of the 17th century.
“Nahum Tate, Purcell’s librettist, is interesting,” Blondell said. “He was instrumental in making Shakespeare palatable to the restoration sensibility. One of the notorious things he did was an adaptation of King Lear in which Lear lives and Cordelia and Edgar marry. That was the version performed for a couple of hundred years.”
While today we scoff at the notion of Lear with a happy ending, “He was adhering to the zeitgeist of the age,” Blondell noted. “Shakespeare was considered far too messy with too much ambiguity. His version followed strict rules of ‘poetic justice,’ where the people who deserved to die died and the people who deserved to live lived. Dido [the opera] was part of this remodeling project.”
So whereas in Marlowe’s play the characters are, in Billington’s words, “constantly torn between divine intervention and human impulse,” the moral equation is much simplified in the opera. Aeneas is instructed to leave Carthage not by the gods (as in Marlowe) but rather by witches who have no motivation other than to cause mischief and misery. As a result, the opera “seems more like an investigation of the nature of evil,” Blondell said. “Given these differences, I’m trying to make the two very discrete and very independent,” he added. “Each has a couple of quotes from the other, but they’re just little moments. Otherwise, they’re completely different productions. Although the two share many cast members, the theatrical approach is different. The costumes are quite different. The set has the same elements but used toward different ends.”
The double bill could prove particularly interesting. “They kind of meet each other,” Blondell said. “One leaves a negative space for the other’s positive impact. The stories kind of nest together like Lego building blocks.”
Dido, Queen of Carthage opens Thursday, January 28, at 8 p.m. and Dido and Aeneas on Friday, January 29, at 8 p.m. at Westmont College’s Porter Theatre. Tickets are $12 general, $7 for seniors and students. For tickets, see westmont.edu/boxoffice or call (805) 565-7140.