Ah, the “C” word. Is there no escaping it? Surely opera, the most fantastical of all stage forms, could be the magic carpet whisking us to a much-needed alternative fiction; where Covid is perhaps a mythical Roman God rather than this pesky contemporary pestilence.
Or has Scottish Opera hit the right note by gluing together the pan-century musical potpourri that is its cheery annual Opera Highlights production with pandemic-strewn dialogue, in the same way traditional pantomime might throw in modish one-liners?
Billed as “a wry look at our socially-distanced times”, you do have to hand it to Scottish Opera. The company has been out in front over the summer with performances, both live and filmed, that say boo to the big “C”. This filmed version of the Highlights Tour, shot in Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre and unveiled on Scottish Opera’s website on Sunday, might not physically be heading for the 30-plus outlying communities it traditionally serves, but ironically and somewhat positively, it could conceivably reach every household in the nation and beyond.
So yes, for all that its weakest aspect is the aforementioned script, which to its credit is functionally minimalist, the stylistic array of arias and ensemble pieces it links, and the fresh aptitude of the buoyant quartet that deliver them – zestful young talent from Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artist scheme – are what score the real success of this hour-long production stage directed by Rosie Purdie, film directed by Antonia Bain.
From cultured Mozart to sentimental Lehar, Ponchielli to doleful Massenet, upbeat Verdi and soulful Korngold to double servings of Donizetti and Bizet, the playlist is like a box of Milk Tray without the dreaded marzipan sandwich. All infinitely palatable, sweetly sung, and portrayed with credible collegiate interaction despite the onstage adherence to individually squared-off confines.
Singly, there is much to savour from soprano Catriona Hewitson’s coquettish Moi, je m’appelle Ciboulette (Reynaldo Hahn) and the sultriness of Korngold’s Marietta’s Lied from Die tote Stadt; and from mezzo soprano Margo Arsane, whose velvety richness hits the spot in a tearful aria from Massenet’s Werther.
Baritone Arthur Bruce slips with ease between the artful nonchalance of Mozart’s Guglielmo (Cosi fan tutte) and the quicksilver wit of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Roulette Song from their final collaboration, The Grand Duke. It’s left to tenor Shengzhi Ren to reach spine chilling heights in Donizetti and Lehar.
A mixed cocktail of ensemble pieces bring depth and variety to this piano accompanied show (the dextrous Susannah Wapshott), ending officially with Bizet’s famous Pearl Fishers duet, but in response to the telling handful of stage-managed applause, offering one more all-cast delight from the pen of Rossini, complete with – you guessed it – yet another social-distancing message.
Opera Highlights is available to view at scottishopera.org.uk
Image: Margo Arsane © Colin Hattersley