Russian Opera Double Bill

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

Moscow-born and UK-based composer Elena Langer had the suite she made of the music for her Welsh National Opera hit Figaro Gets a Divorce performed by the BBC SSO at Glasgow City Halls on the eve of the pandemic, just weeks after it had been premiered by Maxim Emelyanychev in Seattle.

Nicholas McGegan will conduct a performance of that work with the Cleveland Orchestra in August, and the composer’s ongoing connection with the wider Scottish musical community was cemented this week when the Alexander Gibson Opera School presented a beautifully clear and lively staging of her earlier piece, Four Sisters.

Commissioned by Dawn Upshaw specifically for students to perform, the piece borrows three characters (Masha, Irina and Olga) from Chekhov’s play and transplants them to New York City with a Gianni Schicchi-like plot of the lost will and testament of their deceased father.

His was the final coffin in a procession of them in Max Hoehn’s clever staging of three works for the Masters singers at the Conservatoire. If that was tempting fate, the production survived the gremlins and found a serendipitous context.

Partnering the Langer in the double-bill was Cesar Cui’s A Feast in Time of Plague. Setting a short Pushkin play about London’s 1665 Plague with a group of hedonists partying in the face of the pandemic and in defiance of religious disapproval, it has had a few revivals around the globe prompted by the Covid emergency. That this one played as Boris Johnson faced a parliamentary committee could not have been planned, but that was perhaps some recompense for the wave of illness that afflicted the cast during rehearsals.

That resulted in Masha in Four Sisters being sung from the wings by Northern Irish soprano Rebecca Murphy while an indisposed, and masked, Rosalind Dobson walked the part on stage. Perhaps that prompted the rest of the cast to work a little harder through their own chest infections, but they certainly rose to the occasion. Megan Baker and Hannah Bennett, in the mezzo roles of Irina and Olga, and baritone Ross Cumming as their father’s executor, Krumpelblatt, were a fine ensemble and took their solo arias well, although soprano Marie Cayeux almost stole the show with the Maid’s anti-New York song.

Cumming – as strong a performer here as in the Nyman/Bryars double-bill last year – was the key character in A Feast in Time of Plague as the “President” who sings of the encroaching disease and death as an impetus to enjoy life to its fullest extent. Both pieces mix ensemble work with solos to rewarding effect for the casts, and returning graduate Wiktoria Wizner had the pastoral aria as Mary, while the Gothic visions of Louisa were in the hands of Cayeux.

In the pit, guest conductor Lada Valesova found all the colours in both scores, including some fine harp in the Cui and stretching to swanee whistle in Langer’s fun music. There was a prologue to the double-bill in the form of Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes during which tenors William Searle and Sam Marston and baritone Pawel Piotrowski demonstrated their mime skills with a little narrative of the relationship between old music and new. 

Like everything else in this inventive hour and a half of clever work, it spoke as lucidly as it was played, acted and sung, in an evening that was chock-full of parallels and resonances.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Marie Cayeux by Duncan McGlynn