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Dido & Aeneas: A Tragic Love in Review

The early evening of Friday 17 November saw crowds bustle into the foyer of the Laidlaw Music Centre with heightened anticipation. It marked the opening night of ‘Dido and Aeneas’, produced by the St Andrews Chamber Opera Group and available to students for a humble £7. The turnout foreshadowed a propitious night, one promising “expressive music and the rich tradition of Greco-Roman mythology”. As a relatively inexperienced opera enthusiast, I found expectations to be unwaveringly surmounted as I left the performance hall humming to When I Am Laid in Earth.

The opera retells the story of tragic lovers Dido and Aeneas. The intimacy between the Queen of Carthage and the Trojan hero is ruptured by the wicked tricks of the sorceress, ultimately leading to the self-demise of Dido in a heart-breaking final scene. The piece claims a timeless spin on the themes of power, love, and destiny.

Prior to the opera, I sat down with director Emily Speed to discuss the creative process and her hopes for the show. Having previously directed the musical Into the Woods and the Mermaids-produced show Boudica, this was her first dip into opera directing. As a classics student, she was immediately enticed to take on the project, aiming to do justice to this ageless baroque tale.

Speed described the rehearsal process as “imaginative, intensive and fulfilling”, based around an emphasis on improvisation skills. This was designed to deepen the characterizations in hope of humanising the legendary figures and exacerbating the tragic nature of Dido and Aeneas’ legendary love.

She recounts the artistic process as very different to any other piece she has previously partaken in — due to its strong focus on the music. The lack of stage directions in the original piece allowed for greater creative freedom. However, with this came hardships; Speed explains that this flexibility was at times daunting since she often had to conduct creative decisions from scratch. Ultimately, the artistic licence fueled new inventive approaches, as was noticeable onstage.

Led by Musical Director Frederick Frostwick, the orchestra’s contribution steadily guided the show’s progression. They remained firmly spotlighted and consistently excelled in driving our erratic rushes of emotion. Their music impeccably intensified both the individual solos and collective songs that steered the tale.

Despite the music and vocals being the undeniable stars of the show, the opera was greatly theatrical. Aided by the transient blue and green illumination and the seamless set changes, the acting was clear and impactful. At times the drama invoked sparks of comedic relief. Namely, Dido’s vigorous downing of a drink when lamenting the agony of Aeneas stirred some audible audience giggles (although this perhaps says more about St Andrews pub culture!).

The changing characterizations of the chorus, played by Hester Greatrix, Harriet Carlill, Cooper E. Smith and Guy Minch, led the fast pace of the show through a balance of harmonious singing and lively acting. From witches to sailors, both the postures and gestures were easy to recognise and engage with.

In the final scene, I found myself captured by the touching, dramatic intensity of Dido’s solo, played by Selma Bystrand Sraumits. Her vocal performance energised the audience and transmitted the stirring sentiment of tragedy. Throughout the performance, her singing matched perfectly with the powerful tenor tone of Aeneas, played by Brannon Liston-Smith. Their vocal chemistry noticeably enhanced the sombre tones of the plot.

Overall, despite the overwhelming tragic undertone, ‘Dido and Aeneas’ remained heartwarming and pertinent to a modern-day student audience. The fusion of the visuals, vocals and acting resulted in a powerful and all-encompassing experience.

Photo: Olga Alonso Blanco

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