Edinburgh Festival

Dido’s Ghost/The Soldier’s Tale

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Keith Bruce

four stars

THE last of Nicola Benedetti’s trio of performances as artist-in-residence at EIF 2021 was another ensemble piece, following her solo turn in The Story of the Violin. A nod to the year’s anniversary composer, Igor Stravinsky, who died in 1971, the survival of The Soldier’s Tale to find a new audience during another pandemic is perhaps remarkable, given its troubled beginnings during the Spanish Flu epidemic a century ago. The Festival played its part in that with the English translation, written by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black for a performance in the mid-1950s.

It was also used for a version the Scottish Chamber Orchestra streamed in January with actor Matthew McVarish delivering all of the text, and including two of the players in Benedetti’s ensemble: clarinettist Maximiliano Martin and percussionist Louise Goodwin. This expanded realisation by Sir Tom Allen was narrated by himself with Anthony Flaum as the Soldier and Siobhan Redmond as an Eastern European-accented Devil.

Benedetti fans had to wait a while for her solo, when the soldier revives his princess with some magical fiddle playing, but there was a fine balance in the staging between the crack band’s musical content and the acting performances around them, which suited this temporary venue’s wide stage, even if the surtitles were occasionally crucial to making the text clear.

That was also true of Errollyn Wallen’s Dido’s Ghost in the same space, although not perhaps as much as might have been feared. Compared to this work’s earlier streamed incarnation, from London’s Barbican in June, this was clearly a concert performance, and the opportunity to see players and chorus alongside the soloists and minimal staging was a positive asset, with the vocal and instrumental ensembles as crucial to its success as the principals. South African Golda Schultz was in place in the title role, doubling as Dido’s sister Anna, in a richly-cast work, with Allison Cook terrific as the war-like Lavinia and Nardus Williams a dramatic lady-in-waiting, Belinda.

Beside their big performances, Schultz sometimes looked understated, but that struck a balance with Matthew Brook’s intense Aeneas. It is his story, going beyond that covered in Purcell’s Dido And Aeneas, that Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace tell, incorporating the earlier work in their creation.

There is no one hero in this work because it is an ensemble triumph, with conductor John Butt and the Dunedin Consort making a glorious success of Wallen’s clever mix of old and new music. However, Brook’s rendition of the earlier work’s famous Lament at the end of the piece is a singular triumph. There is a lack of didacticism in the morality he struggles to express that seemed oddly akin to the modernism of Stravinsky and Anthony Flaum’s genial, if gullible, Soldier.