Scottish Opera: The Verdi Collection

City Halls, Glasgow

Although it is, for some obscure reason, lousy at labelling them – the non-mainstage strands of its activity are often lumbered with the most prosaic of titles – Scottish Opera has long been highly adventurous in the different ways it goes about selling the artform to the widest public. Those who moan about the reduced number of fully-realised productions it can afford to mount rarely give the company proper credit for that.

If it is “opera in a car park” you want, and apparently the Arts Council of England is particularly keen on that, Scottish Opera blazed a trail during the pandemic. It was also ahead of the game with filmed work, and its work with young people, the mentoring of emerging singers, and outreach into the wider community, has decades of productive history – making last year’s astonishing Candide not the one-off wonder it seemed to some.

Since the arrival of Stuart Stratford as Music Director, there has also been the addition of regular concert performances of rare gems – particularly lost works by Puccini and Mascagni – that are also important in showcasing the strengths of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, restoring its profile after the musicians were given part-time contracts as a cost-saving measure.

The Verdi Collection is the latest development of that strand, four dates in the current season following a one-off Puccini gala in Dundee’s Caird Hall in December 2021. It would not be unkind to say that the format currently falls between stools as it tries to both please seasoned opera-goers and entice new audiences.

As Stratford introduced it, the programme was an exploration of the mature work of Giuseppe Verdi, from La traviata to Otello, although not in that order, as well as being a celebration of “the beating heart of the company”, its orchestra. In that latter aim, it was a magnificent success. There is a warmth to the string sound of the opera orchestra that is all its own, and there were some high quality solo turns from guest first cello Thomas Rann, clarinettist Kate McDermott and the always-distinctive oboe of Amy Turner. Only once – although regrettably at the climax of Violetta’s aria in Act 2, scene 1 of La traviata – was the onstage orchestra too loud for the singing to be heard properly, and Stratford’s balance of his ensemble was generally impeccable.

That extract, however, highlighted both the strengths and the weaknesses of the concert. The opera’s titular “fallen woman” was sung by Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura in one of many company debuts among the soloists. If this was in preparation for her featuring in Scottish Opera’s future plans we shall be fortunate indeed. In partnership with tenor Peter Auty and, especially baritone Lester Lynch in that piece, as Amelia in an aria from the end of Un ballo in maschera, Leonora in La forza del destino, and, supported by Edinburgh mezzo Katherine Aitken’s Emilia, as Desdemona in Otello, Nakamura revealed a dramatic assurance paired with a superbly articulate and versatile voice.

South Korean bass Jihoon Kim will also be welcome back anytime. He stepped in here to replace Brindley Sherratt, having been part of the entirely different cohort of singers in November’s performances of The Verdi Collection in Aberdeen and Inverness. He has an enormous vocal instrument for his compact frame, and although less mobile than either Nakamura or Auty, used it very expressively.

It is plain that the aim of these “Collections” is to go beyond the gala concert of showpiece arias without their context, and impart a sense of the drama and storytelling of the artform by presenting longer extracts, but that does mean the conductor and his team are trying to cover a lot of bases. Perhaps there was more of a sense of the whole of La traviata than of any other work in the programme, but it did take up a lot of the evening. And the whole concert may have been a value-for-money ticket, but it clearly exceeded the attention-span of some in the audience, who elected to slip away.

Lots of good stuff, then, but sometimes it is true that less is more.

Keith Bruce