Scottish Opera prepares for Il Trittico

Ahead of tomorrow’s performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico, Simone Waters speaks to Scottish Opera designer Charles Edwards.

IF DESIGNING the set for one opera is a challenge then designing the set for three operas together is something on a whole different scale. Designer Charles Edwards has been faced with exactly that task as Scottish Opera prepares to stage Puccini’s Il Trittico, a trilogy consisting of Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi.

“We wanted to respect the structure of the event,” explains Edwards, who has been in the industry for the past 30 years. “The actual structure of Puccini’s plan is to have three separate pieces together, all completely independent of each other visually, so they all have different sets. It means, of course, that you are effectively designing three operas. There is no way around it.”

With the operatic super show of sorts beginning its run in Glasgow tomorrow, Edwards describes it as “quite a big project for companies to undertake and it is for that reason that the Il trittico perhaps doesn’t get done so often.” Still, as the set designer states, Puccini always intended it to be an evening of three separate pieces. “There are elements of the story and elements of the situations, which relate to one another. They all deal with death, murder, suicide and then frankly also a comic view of death.”

It is this “end on a high note” that ultimately makes it a very uplifting evening, according to Edwards. “But you do have to go through a sort of mill of emotions before you get there”, he muses. For this designer, it is important to respect the realism of Puccini’s theatre. Edwards compares this to the work of other Italian greats, saying: “Puccini doesn’t write in an abstract sense, in terms of people’s character. It’s not like the Verdis, where you could potentially say it is a more universal thing that goes beyond realism on stage.”

With this in mind, Edwards explains: “I have always felt that about the Puccinis I’ve done, that there needs to be dirt under the fingernails, there needs to be reality of environment that is lived in. That doesn’t mean you have to set them in the time or even the place and location that they are originally set in. You have to be careful with that because they are quite literal pieces in some ways. But it does need realism.”

While Edwards is a self-proclaimed “Sassenach” and moved from London to Edinburgh as a ten-year-old, the production’s director, Sir David McVicar, is Scottish. Describing the duo’s first meetings about Il trittico, Edwards laughs at the memory. “He started by acting out most of the roles in Gianni Schicchi, in broad Glaswegian, in his kitchen. So that was the start of it, he is a very good actor as well as a director and a designer as well. David definitely has the gift of communicating.”

With this as a herald, Edwards describes how the director felt the pieces resonated to a particularly Glaswegian family environment. “Well,” he says, “frankly it can be any family environment really, but once David felt it had this personality, it gave us a great starting point.”

So, it was with this move that the hard work of designing building three sets began. “It is all about creating a sense of familiarity that the audience might engage with, even though we are not deliberately setting any of the three pieces in a Glaswegian or even a Scottish environment. But we still wanted to use it a little bit, partly because it is after all the first time Il trittico is being done in Scotland, entirely by Scottish Opera.”

But, as Edwards adds, it is also the first time the trio is being performed by any company in Scotland since the late 1950s. Deciding to filter Il tabarro’s Paris through a slightly more Scottish lens, the set designer hopes viewers will identify elements of the Glaswegian canal and the city’s industrial docklands. As for the second single act being featured, Suor Angelica, the traditionally Tuscan convent has been influenced by not just the Magdalene Sisters’ institutions but also by the Glasgow’s and other Scottish cities’ tenement staircases. “It is about the sense that you have to scrub to the stone every morning, how it is your duty to look after the building as a sort of communal thing but to then use this spatial idea and locate it one in these institutions, that’s what I wanted.”

Another important factor according to Edwards is to remember the approachability of opera. He describes it as “elite but in the best sense” and expands: “The highest level of work is being done but that doesn’t mean that there is only a small number of people it should be aimed at. Everyone should be able to come see it and Scottish Opera breaks its back reaching out to the community.”

The set designer is a keen supporter of the arts but is equally worried about the state of the status it holds in today’s society. “We are in a real urgent emergency situation”, he says. “We have never been in a situation like this in my adult life where art and culture are as fragile or more at risk and I am desperate to get art, and of course the art I work in, to engage.”

For him, it is something that is being ignored. “We are so worried about all sorts of things that we don’t remember what it is we are actually living for and if art and culture isn’t at the heart of that we have lost it in my imagination. It is really important that a company like Scottish Opera can reach out and connect and that it does what it can to do that with. If we don’t, we’re lost. We all have a duty to spread that love for the arts, not just us who make it.”

Il trittico will play in Glasgow and Edinburgh and tickets are available on Scottish Opera’s website.

Read more news and reviews on Scottish Field’s culture pages.

Plus, don’t miss author Alexander McCall Smith’s column in the April issue of Scottish Field magazine.