Lammermuir: Catriona and the Dragon

Dunbar Parish Church

The fact that Lammermuir Festival kept faith with its latest community opera project for four years, through all the prohibitions of the pandemic, makes celebrating it something that overrides any conflict of interest I may have in doing that for VoxCarnyx.

My son, baritone Arthur Bruce, was one of three professional singers involved, alongside mezzo Andrea Baker and – in a demanding multiplicity of roles – soprano Catriona Hewitson. They would concede that the show was not about them, however, as they voiced the story-telling alongside a huge cast of local people, from adults to young primary schoolchildren, singing, acting and playing most of the orchestral instruments.

Conducted by Sian Edwards, who marshalled their varying skill-levels with impressive aplomb, the orchestra was led by Katie Hull. It was in itself a fascinating development of the McOpera ensemble established by Scottish Opera players when their staff contracts became part-time, with musicians from the SCO, Maxwell Quartet, National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and elsewhere as principals.

Composer Lliam Paterson and librettist Laura Attridge had risen to the challenge of giving everyone in this diverse company an important part to play in a narrative that used local folklore and had a lucid, and unpatronising environmental message. Not only were all the young participants on board for the anthemic chorus at the end, but a child of no more than one in front of me was engrossed by it all.

Leading the community cast in the role of Queen Catriona, Nora Trew-Rae not only revealed a fine voice as the show evolved, but also put in a good number of laps of the auditorium in an energetic performance. That physicality ran through the project and the directors – Attridge, Moira Morrison (Chorus Director), and Ian West (Movement) – achieved wonders of co-ordination. It was Hewitson who often provided the icing on the cake, especially in her soaring singing of the Dragon, but also with some startlingly fast changes of costume.

The climactic confrontation between the Queen and the beast happens off-stage, reported and enacted by her courtiers, Carruthers and Colquhoun (Baker and Bruce). That is a device that can be traced back to ancient tales like Beowulf, but it perhaps lacked a little dramaturgical – rather than performative – style to be a complete success here, solely because it was the only time there were so few people onstage.

It hardly mattered, though, as the chorus quickly returned for that moving Anthem for East Lothian. The county, and Lammermuir Festival, can be justly proud of its talented people, making such a vibrant show in this terrific wee venue.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Catriona Hewitson in rehearsal with the cast by Rob McDougall