Lammermuir: An Italian songbook

The Brunton, Musselburgh

Renaissance man Jeremy Sams is as likely to be found working in the West End as at Garsington or Grange Park Opera, and while his soundtracks feature on works for the large and small screen as well as the stage, his translations of Italian libretto and, more recently, German Lieder, have done more to make music accessible than any number of arts council initiatives.

In the context of his vast back catalogue, this brilliant little show looks like the sort of thing he might knock off in an afternoon, but I am sure that its deceptive breeziness masks a vast amount of work. It is also a rather larger show than it appears, featuring five developed roles for five fine singers with finely-honed acting skills, and a demanding shift for the pianist (co-creator of the show, Christopher Glynn).

Taking its cue from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte – which Lammermuir had happily featured in a compact Scottish Opera version a few days previously – this staging of Hugo Wolf’s combination of German and Italian influences in something that is not a million miles from the stories of Garrison Keillor, Armistead Maupin or The Archers, is rather more carefully plotted than the original. Crucially, however, Sams and Glynn (and co-director Louise Shepherd for this staging) do not labour either the parallels with Da Ponte’s tale of fickle lovers or their own narrative. The structure is there – and the performers have great fun with it – but the music is never in second place.

This cast, which tours the show to Liverpool, Bristol and London, has tenors Robert Murray and James Wray teamed with Kathryn Rudge and Rowan Pierce, and baritone Roderick Williams as the notebook-wielding Don Alfonso figure. He’s a manipulative rather than malevolent figure, but still destined to come a cropper, and the playfulness with such stereotypes also embraces the cynical soprano and tempestuous mezzo while the chaps juggled “innocent” and “hapless”. There was no social distancing on stage, but the performers had great fun with their characters’ gaps of understanding.

All five sang superbly, relishing the intimacy of the occasion with a huge range of dynamics, and making the most of Sams’ delicious wordplay, which fully realises the humour of Wolfe and his librettist Paul Heyse as well as adding a good deal of wit of his own.

There have, perhaps, been many similar shows, from Ned Sherrin’s Side by Side by Sondheim through to the format Graham Vick invented for Scottish Opera to reach remote parts of Scotland, which, as Scottish Opera Highlights, opens in its umpteenth touring incarnation this week, but few have been as slick and clever as this one.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Rowan Pierce