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Dido's Lament

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 16:12 UK time, Monday, 15 June 2009

didos_lament.jpg have been reading an entertaining novel called Dido's Lament by Peter Stickland, published by 77 Books which appears to be the author's own company. It fantasises an account of the first performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in no particular year. The first-person narrator is Nahum Tate, Purcell's librettist, who records the made-up events in the present tense. Stickland has the premiere coincide with both the opening of Josias Priest's school (which recent research suggests was not the case) and Purcell's marriage to Frances Pieters (which in reality took place some years before).

Still, the evolving love-drama gives the plot momentum and Stickland handles it deftly after a slow start. There is tension in the subplot involving Nahum and his mistress, who rebuffs his advances but welcomes his professional help. Stickland leaves the identity of this profession to be inferred and it is not what the reader initially thinks. The ups and downs in the relationships are cleverly matched to the twists in the opera as Purcell and Tate write them.

Tate's voice is constant, delivering all the dialogue so that the characters speak only through his filter. His tone is contemporary which contrasts with the 17th century English of his original libretto. One character is 'trying to scrounge some costumes' and Purcell himself tells the narrator to 'give me some words' for the tune he has just written for the eponymous lament. Stickland fantasises that the aria's composition was inspired by a near-death experience for Purcell, a presage of his actual death a decade later. He falls off a roof, drunk.

Stickland tells a good story, though it could do with some paring down. The present tense gives the flow of events an entertaining urgency, like the commentary of a horse-race, but there are longueurs in the amount of theatrical detail given and various red herring scenes. Does Purcell have to explain his conducting technique? The novel works best when mirroring the agonies of love thrown up by the opera in the personal lives of the two men creating it and one relishes the coming together of characters and events at the denouement of the last act premiere. Who knows, there may even be a play in it.


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