Opera Double Bill

Perth Concert Hall

Scottish Opera’s Russian double bill in Perth last week, which opened with a hearty burst of Ukraine’s operatic national anthem, was an informative insight into the minds of two very different musical giants and their operatic response to Pushkin texts.

First up was Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight, a somewhat slavish hour-long contraction of a play about a tragic family dispute. Then to the more diminutive Mavra and the comic abandon with which Stravinsky set his razor-sharp mind to a farcical plot about a boy, forbidden from seeing this girlfriend by her domineering mother, who poses – like Mrs Doubtfire – as the mother’s new housemaid.

Together they made a fine couple: Rachmaninov’s calorific orchestral score heaving with symphonic richness, its leanings to Wagnerian leitmotif and theatrical autonomy casting it in a quasi-cinematic role; Stravinsky’s nuclear chamber ensemble (despite a daunting backroom brass unit of four trumpets, three trombones and tuba) offering a tangy palate-cleanser motivated by fast-action pastiche.

Both were presented with minimal staging, the Scottish Opera Orchestra dominating the vast Perth performance space, in front of which the small respective casts conformed to the minimalist dramaturgy of director Laura Attridge. Where bare minimum action in The Miserly Knight (a chair each for the five singers with symbolic accessory – hat, scarf, whatever – to define each part) left us visually short-changed, any such economies in the Stravinsky (a dressing table as the singular prop, but fuller costuming) were effectively offset by significantly increased animation.

There was an issue with balance in the Rachmaninov, tenor Alexey Dolgov’s big opening as the Baron’s waster son, Albert, frequently neutered by the overpowering orchestra, but otherwise ardently delivered. To varying degrees that affected others in the five-strong cast, though the overall synergy made for a helpful appraisal of the work, its ingrained passion, also its turgid demeanour. The underlying perception, given the orchestral predominance, was of an imbedded symphony though hardly on a par with Rachmaninov’s real ones.

Fine singing, though, from the heroic Roland Wood, stepping in at the eleventh hour as the self-absorbed Baron, from Alasdair Elliott as the irksome moneylender Solomon, Alexey Gusev as the imperious Duke, and John Molloy as the pliable servant.

We were transported into a more colourful, wholly-satisfying world with the shorter Mavra, and an instrumental performance that moved quickly from its grounded opening to one of blistering heat and acid wit. The central pair – a frothy Anush Hoyhannisyan as Parasha and agile Alexey Gusev as the petulant Vassili – were a zingy, centrifugal force, around which Sarah Ping’s unreasonable mother and Lea Shaw’s  concerned neighbour added their own distinctiveness to the frolicking nonsense. The central quartet was a pivotal showpiece.

This was a one-off performance, which is a shame as it deserves to have been exposed to a wider audience base. 

Ken Walton