Opera Highlights

Websters Theatre, Glasgow

Without wishing to diminish the takings of florists and confectioners in North East Scotland when Scottish Opera’s four-singers-and-a-piano tour arrives there shortly, this new show has to be the perfect Valentine’s treat.

Told in rhyming couplets, the narrative director John Savournin has used to frame Derek Clark’s selection of arias is of love’s rocky road, and eventual happy resolution, as it is experienced by a band of travelling players. Before the interval, this features a huge chunk from the end of Act 1 of Puccini’s La boheme, as Rudolfo and Mimi discover one another. Add that to the inclusion of most of Act 3 in the recent Puccini Gala in Dundee, following the excellent outdoor production necessitated by the pandemic, and it is clearly an opera that the company cannot resist.

Fortunately, Clark has included some less obvious music, of which a trio from Mozart’s Idomeneo and baritone Dan Shelvey, the show’s emcee, as the Pierrot Franz in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt are first-half hits, while the whole evening concludes with a characteristic flourish of Die Fledermaus and the operettas of Sigmund Romberg.

The vaudeville tone is maintained throughout by everyone on stage, and in the piano style of music director Mark Sandon, with Janis Hart’s set and costuming (no trellis this year!) crucial to the framework. The inclusion of composer Lucie Treacher’s commission, setting scenes from Woolf’s To A Lighthouse, may sit outside the main narrative, but the company made it work in an ensemble performance of some fascinating music that was another highlight of the evening.

As always, this touring show, which visits everywhere from the Outer Hebrides to Dumfries and Galloway, is chiefly about the singers, and this quartet are particularly well-matched. Shelvey is Luiz in the company’s current Gondoliers and he seems particularly comfortable in the lighter material. Scottish soprano Monica McGhee proves equally at home with Handel’s Cleopatra and Emmerich Kalman’s When I hear those gypsy fiddles.

It is especially important though, that these shows feature former Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Shengzhi Ren and Margo Arsane whose time on the career-making project was disrupted by the health emergency. The Chinese tenor has a terrific instrument and shows a real flair for comedy here – when he enunciates a line in music-theatre RP it sounds especially plummy.

Mezzo Arsane, meanwhile, is the complete show-woman, swapping gender throughout on the broadest range of repertoire, and adding guitar, violin and the spoons to the instrumental mix.

If this programme has a flaw it is in an over-reliance on solos, when the foursome work so well as an ensemble and in different combinations when asked to. Their choreography is pretty good too.

One other thought (and it is an old bugbear, I admit). As these shows are now through-conceived by their directors, it seems increasingly inaccurate for them all to go out under the bland “Opera Highlights” banner. This one in particular, with its caravan set and carnival tone, would be well-suited to the old Opera-Go-Round name – and its reintroduction would be a fitting tribute to the late Graham Vick who invented the concept when he was with Scottish Opera in the 1980s, and who died from Covid complications last summer.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Opera’s Opera Highlights is on the road across Scotland until March 19. Tour details on the company website, scottishopera.org.uk

Picture: Craig Fuller