In 13th century Florence, there really was a true skulduggery over nobly born Busoni Donati’s Will when peasant Gianni Schicchi was called upon to advise the family. For his impersonation and immoral personal gain, Dante placed him in the eighth circle of hell reserved for tricksters.  Puccini saw it rather differently and in this, his last completed opera, asks us to take into account the ‘extenuating circumstances’ faced by one of opera’s most lovable rogues. Indeed, Opera Bohemia asks the audience in a strapline, “How far would you go?”

The excitement of the Edinburgh Fringe is its cacophony of talent, from stand-up comedians, chainsaw jugglers, serious and not so serious theatre and everything in between. It was a delight therefore to discover Opera Bohemia tucked away in St Cuthbert’s Parish church at the west end of Princes Street Gardens. This young company has brought together some top singers, most of whom have at some point been trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow (formerly the RSAMD) but are now further on in their careers. With a small ensemble of handpicked orchestral players, standards were extremely high.

Gianni Schicchi © Opera Bohemia
Gianni Schicchi
© Opera Bohemia
Magnus Popplewell designed an effective economic touring set depicting a 1980s modern apartment in Florence, a challenge in an opera with a large cast to get on stage and which normally calls for a four poster bed. As we took our seats, a seriously doddery Buoso Donati was being helped into his recliner chair surrounded by tidy bookshelves containing a mixture of reading material and boxes of papers accumulated over the years.  A dresser with a cross, candles and icons above explains why, after his passing and to the disgust of his grasping family, he has left all his wealth to the Church. The Donati family call in Gianni Schicchi to see if there is anything that can be done, and so begins an evening of huge fun driven by avarice and snobbery.

Gianni Schicchi © Opera Bohemia
Gianni Schicchi
© Opera Bohemia
Director Tom Cooper worked wonders in the small performing space with some great comic moments and ingenious stagecraft, yet he allowed the piece to breathe at key times too, particularly for the handful of arias. With a body to hide, impersonation to achieve believably and a dozen singers in a small space, there were lots of challenges, all of which were met with ease. Cooper struck the delicate balance of never quite letting this dark tale spill over into full pantomime.     

The family of singers all blended well together with animated and strongly sung ensemble performances. There were standout moments from Cheryl Forbes as an affronted and angry Zita, James Arthur as the eldest, Simone, expected to solve the problems, and Andrew Dickinson as love-sick Rinuccio, who is presented with the Will by Gherarda (Amy Piggot) in her 1980s Brownie uniform during a blizzard of papers as the family turn the apartment inside-out. Teasingly hinted at in the score before it finally arrives, “O mio babbino caro,” sung by Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta, is the show-stopper, and Deborah Rudden gave it fine treatment. Andrew McTaggart in the key role of Schicchi held the stage completely, his face lighting up as each new mischievous possibility crossed his mind.

The ensemble conducted by Alister Digges tackled this often surprisingly dissonant music with a verve and accuracy, balancing with the singers well in the church acoustic. The switchovers to passionate arias about love and the beauty of Florence were particularly moving and effective.

In a way, this immensely enjoyable performance is a demonstration of the legacy of the Opera School in Glasgow together with Scottish Opera’s programme of nurturing young talent in their emerging artists programme. Although this was a Fringe show, I rather got the feeling that it could have been acceptably transported up to the Queen’s Hall with an Edinburgh International Festival label.