Scottish Opera Young Company

Edington Street Studios, Glasgow

The ampersand in the heading of this review is doing a lot of heavy lifting. For all the skill and cleverness evident in every aspect of this challenging double-bill from the youth wing of Scottish Opera, the way in which director Flora Emily Thomson, conductor Chris Gray and this excellent ensemble achieved the transition between Henry McPherson’s contemporary take on Dark Ages myth and a faithful presentation of Kurt Weill’s compact tale of mid-20th century rural American Gothic was quite masterly.

There was no break in this double-bill, some swift side-stage costume changes and a stripping-back of lusher elements of the sylvan setting (both the work of Finlay McLay) taking place as the musicians segued from McPherson’s score to Weill’s. It was bold, but made perfect sense because of the shared elements of the stories, in which insular communities demonstrate a fearful ruthlessness at the expense of the charismatic hero we are all rooting for.

McPherson’s Maud was first seen as part of a triple-bill of short premieres at Glasgow’s SWG3 in 2018 in an event that looked back to Scottish Opera’s 5:15chamber-opera commissioning strand and forward to the establishment of the Young Company as a successor to the company’s “Connect” project. It had the best of the presentation then, and – although scaled down in terms of its instrumental forces – worked well here too, even if the balance between the keyboards and percussion and the whispering ensemble was initially difficult to tune into.

Young mezzo Imogen Bews, who also brought a fine swaggering presence to her trouser-role as Thomas Bouché in the Weill, supplied the role created by Danish mezzo Lise Christensen as the Wise Woman overseeing the tale with a strong and flexible voice. The triple-casting of the title role – Elinor Gent, Maria Wotherspoon and Anna Sophie Montgomery – gave our heroine a physical presence to match the meaner influences of her parents and the villagers with their palpable suspicion of “the other”.

McPherson’s music may not be the most melodious or harmonic, but his use of arias and choruses was recognisable enough, and the ensemble singing was as impressive as the range of solo voices.

If that piece was far from an easy sing for these young musicians, neither is the Weill, even if the composer’s use of traditional American folk songs suggests a closer kinship with musical theatre. The star solo turns here were baritone preacher/community leader Joshua Campbell, tenor Luke Francis as Brack Weaver, and especially Helena Engebretsen as the central love interest, Jennie Parsons.

With violinist Katie Hull joining the keyboards of Karen McIvor and Hilary Brooks and percussionist Darren Gallagher, her solo line was a key partner to the soprano’s anguish in what is almost a Victorian melodrama transferred to the rural USA. Told in flashback, the crucial fight scene was excellently choreographed in a production in which the ensemble movement, using all of the auditorium, was as accomplished as the choral singing.

The Young Company can be seen  at Barrfields in Largs on Saturday (July 29) and Stirling’s Albert Halls on Sunday (July 30).

Keith Bruce

Picture of Helena Engebretsen and Luke Francis in Down in the Valley by Sally Jubb