Drama in the detail

Delicate and ornate, QSOC goes Baroque with the classic tale of Dido and Aeneas

Beth Egnatoff brings Queen Dido to life and death.
Beth Egnatoff brings Queen Dido to life and death.
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Director Lee Sela’s large group scenes are rife with Baroque ornamentation.
Director Lee Sela’s large group scenes are rife with Baroque ornamentation.
Photo: 

Opera and student are not two words you often hear paired together. Leave it to the eager students of Queen’s to stage a full-scale opera and make it look like a professional production.

Queen’s Student Opera Company, now in its 11th season, will present Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at The Grand Theatre. A Baroque opera, this piece is written in English and was first performed in the late 1600s. The production chronicles the story of Queen Dido and the Trojan refugee Aeneas. Aeneas is shipwrecked in Dido’s court and, making the most of his situation, woos the Queen. The two are blissfully in love, but only briefly. It’s not long before an Enchantress, and her two witches, plot to destroy the lovers. Aeneas leaves for Rome and, unable to handle a long-distance relationship, Dido takes to drastic measures and ends her grief by taking her own life.

Although this storyline evokes images of kings and queens and appeals to a romanticism that doesn’t really exist today, it’s easy to see how this piece is relatable to students. Love—and the loss of it—is on the collective consciousness of students everywhere and I’m sure we’ve all had an evil Enchantress or two in our lives. Your lover may not have left you to go and discover Rome, but that might just be the old-world version of the “I need more space” spiel.

Dido and Aeneas is quite at home in The Grand Theatre and makes full use of the large space. The performers look like they have been plucked from a Baroque painting and delicately positioned onstage. The performers’ physical gestures are exaggerated and overly dramatic in a way many audiences may not be used to, but it works with the over-the-top staging and movement of the piece. The acting too may seem foreign to modern-day audiences, as blocking works to draw out moments and heighten emotions.

The costumes are breathtakingly intricate and detailed. Costume designer Grace Chung made the costumes an integral part of the viewing pleasure of this piece. The set design is simple enough as to not distract attention from the actors and truly gives life to the space. Lighting designer Alicia Ho has also set the mood with her designs—treading the line between realistic and abstract—and the lighting makes a significant contribution to the overall spectacle of the piece.

The strength of this piece lies in the combination of all of these operatic elements. When the full cast is on stage it’s irresistible and impressive. Director Lee Sela has incorporated large energized group scenes to the advantage of the piece, ensuring each member of the ensemble has a place.

The cohesiveness of Dido and Aeneas makes for a delightful viewing experience. Although heavy on the drama, audience members will be able to step back and enjoy the simpler beauty of opera. Sela’s consistency in direction allows for the opera to flow and not one aspect of the production stands alone. This constant pulse of Dido and Aeneas made my first student opera experience one that went by quicker than I thought it would. I no longer hesitate to experience this combination of the words student and opera.

Dido and Aeneas runs tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $14 for students, avaialble at The Grand Theatre Box Office.

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