An unexpected diversion on the road to Oedipus.
John Dryden’s reworking of Sophocles, entitled Oedipus, was one of the most performed plays of English Restoration drama, full of relish in the descriptions of the story’s more violent and bloodthirsty elements that appealed mightily to the public. In 1692 Purcell set parts of it to music, including “Music for a While,” one of his most familiar and striking works…however incongruous it seems in its restraint and calmness compared with the tumultuous drama of the narrative. The “Alecto” referred to in the text is one of the Furies, female spirits or goddesses of vengeance and justice in Greek mythology who were given the special job of persecuting those who kill a parent (such as Oedipus and Orestes). Alecto represents the irrationality of human behavior: anger, fury, destruction, violence—which can be cured by the restorative powers of music (“till the snakes drop from her head”). For a short but interesting article on this, see Harper’s Magazine.
Another operatic reference to Alecto (Aletto) is in Electra’s tremendously furious aria from Idomeneo: “…within my breast I feel the torments of [my brother] Orestes … Alecto’s torch now brings me death.”