Edinburgh Studio Opera’s double bill: ‘Dido & Aeneas’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’

To mark the 50th anniversary of its founding, Edinburgh Studio Opera is putting on a double-bill of Dido and Aeneas, a 17th century opera by Henry Purcell, and Gianni Schicchi, a 20th century comic opera by Giacomo Puccini. The production as a whole embraces contrast with two very different pieces chosen, the first a complex tragedy, the second a farcical comedy. Both are sung in English, making this production accessible for all, although orthodox opera enthusiasts might disagree with the decision to translate Puccini’s piece from Italian. The audience and the actors are mostly on the same level, which further increases a sense of proximity, and the production team make the most out of the venue, creating a three-fold stage with the audience facing the actors from opposite sides.

The classical story of Dido and Aeneas’ ill-fated love is transposed to 1950s Rome, with the titular characters presented as the Brangelina of their day. The first scene, however, belongs to Dido (Freya Holliman) and her lover Belinda (Sally Carr), who for the first few minutes neither speak nor sing, but nevertheless movingly act out their secret passion for one another.

The orchestra, led by conductor William Conway, serves to smoothly transition one moment into the next, carrying with it the fast-changing emotions of the characters and the audience. The singing, as one might expect from a student production, is mixed, but Holliman is fantastic as Dido.

Light and smoke effects were well-used to create a supernatural and sinister atmosphere, for instance when the witches persuade Belinda to enter into a blood pact. In one captivating scene all we can see of the characters is their silhouettes behind a screen. Not everything ran entirely smoothly on the opening night, for instance plastic wine glasses on the stage were accidentally knocked over and smashed, but these minor accidents could not detract from an overall accomplished performance. The plot is somewhat hard to follow, so it is worth investing in a programme.

The plot-line of the second performance is much easier to follow, centring on the machinations of a family who are horrified to learn that the late Buoso Donati (Matthew Banks) has bequeathed his entire fortune to a monastery. The actors do a good job at capturing the chaotic atmosphere of an Italian family gathering. Their portrayal of the hypocritical, self-serving relatives is deliberately over-the-top and silly.

Johannes Moore, who in his role as Aeneas in the first play fails to fully get into the character, excels as the charismatic Gianni Schicchi, whom the family enlist to help secure Donati’s possessions. Banks is convincing in his role as a sick old man and later a corpse, and Serena Linley-Adams, as Lauretta, does justice to the well-known aria O mio babbino caro.

It was a good decision to have the dark tragedy first and to save the light-hearted comedy until after the interval. Gianni Schicchi is undoubtedly the most entertaining of the two, but Dido and Aeneas gives the cast and crew more scope to display their full potential. Overall this double-bill is a fantastic introduction to the versatility of opera as a theatrical medium.

Image: Andrew Perry

‘Dido & Aeneas’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’

Runs 27th February-3rd March

Assembly Roxy Theatre

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