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Classical Notes

Creative reconstructions of ‘Dido’

Festival re-creates opera as it may have originated

Douglas Williams rehearsing “Dido and Aeneas.’’ Douglas Williams rehearsing “Dido and Aeneas.’’ (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / November 26, 2010

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Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas’’ has come down to us as one of the most highly venerated of Baroque operas. Performances abound, as do recordings of virtually any interpretive stripe. The piece shows off Purcell’s economical yet adroit handling of texts, and Dido’s final lament, “When I am laid in earth,’’ stands as one of the era’s most affecting vocal works.

What’s often overlooked is that “Dido and Aeneas,’’ as we know it, is a torso, with a host of questions surrounding it.

“The main body of ‘Dido’ [has] lived on, but its original context is, I’m afraid, lost in the mists of time,’’ says Stephen Stubbs, co-artistic director of the Boston Early Music Festival. For example, records exist of a performance at a girls’ school in the late 1680s, which may or may not have been its premiere. The earliest musical parts for the opera date from the late 18th century, with a significant portion of Purcell’s music missing.

On this post-holiday weekend, the festival is offering two performances of “Dido and Aeneas’’ that face these mysteries head on and use them as opportunities for creative reconstruction. The result is an approximation of what an early performance of “Dido’’ may have sounded like. The qualifiers are important, as Stubbs explains during a phone conversation from the BEMF offices in Cambridge.

His intent wasn’t to re-create the piece as it actually was — an impossible task. Rather, “there’s a kind of education process, a fleshing out of the picture of what it might have been from our other experiences. We’re putting together a lot of conjectures and educated guesses to make it feel like a complete piece.’’

The “Dido’’ production is the third in BEMF’s annual series of chamber opera productions, which take place in Jordan Hall. The setting was important for some of the decisions Stubbs and his colleagues made for “Dido.’’ The hall, with its wood paneling, “gives something of the atmosphere of a stately home or a palace.’’

That led stage director Gilbert Blin to the idea of presenting “Dido’’ as if it were being staged in a private home or palace, rather than in a theater. “Our kind of ground fiction, if you like, is that the singers on stage are the courtiers of the time, making entertainment for the king.’’

Stubbs points out that one of the parts of the original opera that’s no longer extant is the prologue, which he claims Purcell would likely have modeled on a similar piece by the French composer Lully. It would have had several sections, including instrumental overtures, choruses, and parts for vocal soloists.

When he was looking for music in Purcell’s corpus that could fulfill this function, Stubbs turned to a genre known as welcome songs — ceremonial works composed to commemorate special occasions at the royal court. Stubbs settled on one called “Welcome, Vicegerent of the Mighty King,’’ whose subject matter fits perfectly with the conceit of BEMF’s production.

“So we get the welcome back and then the courtiers present the play of ‘Dido’ for him,’’ he explains. “I’m hoping people will say, gosh, this feels like it might have been.’’

Another welcome song is used as an epilogue, and Stubbs has also inserted dances from other Purcell works. He even wrote music of his own — in Purcell’s style — for a scene for which only the text survives. “If you think of it like a restorer of a painting, where there’s a corner missing, you can pretty much imagine what I did — try to do your best to make the corner feel as if it fits.’’

Stubbs thinks of the project not only as a reconstruction but also as an attempt to jolt listeners out of their familiarity with a cherished favorite.

“I’m not looking at it with an encrusted traditional view, whereas some people have that in their ears,’’ he says. “After 35 years of experience, I look at this piece and think, ‘It goes this way.’ And if it doesn’t happen to fit with the tradition, then I have to sometimes fight to get the version that I hope it will be.’’

The performances also represent a further step forward for BEMF, which offered its first chamber opera production in 2008 as a way of bridging the gap between the festival’s large-scale operas, which are produced every two years. Coming directly after Thanksgiving, the chamber operas now mark a kind of unofficial kickoff to the holiday season. And the group will also take last year’s chamber production of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea’’ on tour through North America in the spring.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.

PURCELL’S “DIDO AND AENEAS’’ Presented by Boston Early Music Festival

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday

at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., tickets $19-125. 617-661-1812, www.bemf.org