ESO falls for Fellini

Feb 23 2018 | By More

Studio Opera goes traverse for Puccini and Purcell

Edinburgh Studio Opera is celebrating its fiftieth year with a double bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at the Assembly Roxy for four performances next week.

The two short operas are often paired up; Virgil’s tragic love affair between Dido and Aeneas is counterbalanced nicely with the comical farce of Gianni Schicchi, forged in the fires of Dante’s Inferno.

Dido & Aeneas. Pic: Andrew Perry

What is less common is the traverse staging which director Robert Hersey will be employing for his 27-strong cast. He is also unifying the two operas into one set which takes its cue from Fellini’s 1960 movie, La Dolce Vita.

The staging is not always ideal, as Hersey readily admits: “It does throw up new challenges for everyone, especially the singers,” he told Æ. “They have had to memorise all their cues and learn not to rely on the conductor. There are also problems in the time lag of the acoustic and the distance between the ensemble and the singers too.”

However, for all the difficulties – not to mention the complex problem of getting the balance between voices and musicians right – Hersey says the use of traverse staging can give real positives to the performance.


“Singers suddenly have no need to project over an orchestra,” he says. “It is a much more intimate chamber space where the singers can communicate more subtlety through their body, face and voice. It also gives the singer a hugely free range of movement.”

A scene from Dido & Aeneas. Pic: Andrew Perry

If the traverse set also means that the audience will have different experiences of the show, depending on where they are sitting, it also brings a new dynamic to the work because of that proximity to the stage.

“There is a sense of excitement at being so close, within touching distance of operatic singers in full flow,” Hersey says. “To feel a cathartic sense of tragedy at the end of Dido & Aeneas and to be shocked and challenged through the new narrative of the piece, especially the relationship between Dido and Belinda but also the predatory nature of Aeneas.”

fast, furious and hilarious

Gianni Schicchi is the less performed of the pair, although it has had a couple of Edinburgh production in the last decade. It’s the story of a family who despair when the wealthy patriarch dies leaving everything to the local monastery. They ask the peasant Gianni Schicchi to impersonate the dead man, convince a doctor he is still alive and then dictate a new will to the local notary…

“I hope the audience feels completely taken into the middle of the fast, furious and hilarious narrative of this absurd comic masterpiece,” says Hersey.

“I recently fell in love with the work of Fellini and, in particular, the film La Dolce Vita. The world it creates turns highly sexualised. It is dream-like, absurdist, and highly relevant to today’s society. It seemed to fit this opera and give it power and meaning through its obsession with celebrity, of self destruction, hubris…

“The opera seems to have this flip side too; an upside down world which mirrors the daytime and yet is nightmare-like, disturbing and irrational. This again seemed to me like a city with its secret dark underbelly just as Rome has – or for that matter Edinburgh.”

Hersey said that he also wanted to explore a changed narrative for Dido and Aeneas, which he says seems close to the edge from the beginning – liable to break or spiral off into a self destructive hedonistic night. Which, again, he says is mirrored in late 50s Italian cinema.

Gianni Schicchi seemingly inhabits a different world, a different Italian city – Firenze, a different style… Yet are Dante and Virgil that removed from each other?

“Both have their beginnings in the underworld. The character of Gianni Schicchi seems to arrive, as the Sorceress does, to create havoc or is called upon to come to the rescue. Only for the participants to realise they have just made a pact with the devil!

“Both the Sorceress and Gianni walk away with everything in payment for their services.

“I wanted to bring both operas into the same era to start to tease out these underlying connections. At the end of Dido & Aeneas, the cast of Gianni Schicchi rush in onto the set – too late. They sing the last chorus as they witness Dido dead on stage under the cameras of the paparazzi.

“I wanted to underline those uneasy questions about where real life ends and dreams, celluloid, light, darkness begin.”

Listings & links

Dido and Aeneas and Gianni Schicchi
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU
Tuesday 27 February – Saturday 3 March 2018
Evenings Tue/Wed, Fri/Sat: 7.30pm.
Tickets and details:

Edinburgh Studio Opera website:
Facebook: @EdinburghStudioOpera
Twitter: @edstudioopera

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