The earlier collaboration between Peel and Usher, Voces Vergilianae, an opera-oratorio in four scenes, was performed with full orchestra and chorus in Salem, Oregon in 1999. Here is the “Librettist’s Note” that appeared in the program of the premiere, which explains the aesthetic thrust of this work. For the full text of the libretto, click here: Voces Vergilianae Libretto. For the Latin text of Scene II with English translation, click here: Voces Scene II Latin.
For a recording of Scene II, click here:
Librettist’s Note to Voces Vergilianae, by M. D. Usher
Vergil is arguably the most virtuosic composer of classical antiquity, a master of many voices, genres, and styles. He is fluent not only in the verse of his Latin predecessors, but in Homer and the Hellenistic poets as well, and draws on them all, sometimes in one and the same breath. His work is everywhere sonorous, precise, and rich in allusion. I have tried to convey Vergil’s artistry in this libretto, which is a reworking of his magnificent poetry.
The theme of this opera-oratorio is the amorous tragedy of Dido and Aeneas. Their story, summarized below, occupies most of Books 1 and 4 of the Aeneid, but the verses used to tell it here are drawn from other books of the poem as well. Some are even borrowed from another of Vergil’s poems, the Georgics. Of course, many of these verses in their original context have nothing directly to do with either Dido or Aeneas; and even when they do, the characters here often sing lines not assigned to them in the Aeneid proper. In displacing such passages my idea was to construct a narrative that was organic and faithful to its source, yet one that could also comment at a deeper level on the many thematic and semantic links between various scenes in Vergil’s intricate poem. The result is an interpretation of the whole Aeneid through its parts: the disparate, even dissonant voices of its many characters meld for a moment to sing of arms, a man, a woman, and their love. Nowhere is this more true than in the treatment of the Chorus, who sing from multiple perspectives in this piece. Polyphonic in every sense, they are at once Trojan and Carthaginian in their sympathies, and sometimes play the role of an omniscient narrator.
Vergil lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of Roman history. As a young man, he experienced the ravages of war during the civil unrest of the late Republic, and in later life enjoyed the blessings of Roman peace under Octavian. His poetry reflects—or refracts—the uncertainty of his times; it is an achieved anxiety creatively poised between hope and despair. This too I have tried to convey. Our text, for example, begins with an optimistic passage taken over verbatim from Book 1 of the Aeneid, and ends with Dido’s suicide, narrated by the Chorus, who sing the final lines of the epic—lines that properly describe not Dido’s death by her own hand, but Aeneas’ slaughter of his enemy, Turnus. Dido and Turnus are but two of the many casualties in Rome’s relentless march to world domination, and Vergil himself invites his readers to make the connection between them in the Aeneid. I wanted to make it explicit—suggestively—by using lines from the one scene to evoke the other.
The structure of this libretto is meant to be suggestive as well. It is modeled loosely on Greek tragedy, whose formal conventions of strophe, antistrophe, and epode organize the choral passage in Scene 2. Like the musical movements of a French suite, these ancient Greek terms refer to dance movements that accompanied the choral songs of tragedy. I hope the listener will imagine in this scene the exaggerated gestures of two lovers courting each other on the mountainsides of Carthage.
In re-appropriating Vergil’s poetry for this new occasion, I have often had to change a word in a line, or play with a given Latin word’s connotation to make a verse fit its new context. In every instance, however, I have preserved the metrical integrity of the original (the basic rhythm of which is heard in e. e. cummings’ well-known poem “what if a much of a which of a wind”). In fact, throughout the process of composing this script, I have tried to keep Vergil’s own meticulous practice in view: as described by an ancient commentator, “of working and reworking the poetry as a she-bear does her cubs, gradually licking it into shape.” Others have reworked Vergil’s poetry along similar lines, often setting his verses to non-Vergilian themes: Ausonius of Bordeaux in the 4th century; Scottish theologian Alexander Ross in the 17th. One Renaissance reader, Maphaeus Vegius, found the abrupt, ambiguous ending of the Aeneid unsatisfactory and composed a happier ending, an additional Thirteenth Book, in perfect Vergilian Latin. For my part, I have found Vergil a sufficient interpreter of himself, and I wanted to let him speak here in his own multifarious voices: Voces Vergilianae.