Opera Highlights

Eastwood Park Theatre

Scottish Opera’s four-singers-and-a-piano touring to small theatres and community halls is now the most dependable ingredient of its season as economies bite into the more expensive elements of the programme. Dependable, but not predictable, because although some of the shape of these shows is unchanging, other ingredients are always excitingly new.

Most obviously the cast is a constantly refreshing introduction to singers in the early years of their careers, occasionally with a more experienced voice in the mix. In February and March this new show will be a showcase for all four of the company’s new recruits to its Emerging Artists programme, and they will have a hard act to follow.  Of the quartet on the road now, two are making their company debut and the other pair have just a single Scottish Opera gig in their performing history.

The soprano and mezzo are both home-grown, although they made their reputations elsewhere. As a Garsington Opera Young Artist, Katy Thomson stepped in for an indisposed Miah Persson as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier – and her singing here leaves no doubt that she has the chops for that role. Katherine Aitken has been a studio principal at the Opera de Lyon and was a terrific Tisbe in the Stefan Herheim production of La Cenerentola the French company brought to the 2018 Edinburgh Festival.

Baritone Jerome Knox is Glasgow-trained, at the Alexander Gibson Opera School of the Royal Conservatoire, and he and South African tenor Innocent Masuku have extensive CVs of work with UK companies.

Although all four make excellent solo contributions to this programme, displaying their individual versatility, it is more impressive how well they bond as a team, with some beautifully blended ensemble singing and a display of acting skills and physical expression that should shame some of their more illustrious seniors in the opera world.

The choice of material for them to sing remains, for this year at least, in the capable hands of recently-retired Head of Music at Scottish Opera, Derek Clark. There are possibly fewer of his maverick selections, and more music that is better known (at least to me), but the key to the show’s success is the way they are combined. With the simple device of placing her characters in the socially interactive hothouse of a wedding reception, both as guests and (with some quick changes) in the conveniently androgynous uniform of staff, director Laura Attridge provides a plausible context for duets by Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Offenbach and Puccini, arias by Handel, Donizetti, Gounod and Massenet, and a splendid trio from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment.

Such concepts in Highlights staging often come unstuck when the show reaches the recent inclusion of a new commission, but not in this instance. Following last year’s Told By An Idiot, composer Toby Hession, who is music director and accompanist on this tour, and librettist Emma Jenkins (director of Strauss’s Daphne at the start of the month) have supplied another world premiere with In Flagrante, conveniently also using a hotel function suite, but now at the end of a debauched political party conference.

As government ministers crawl from under the tables in states of undress and a suitcase full of used banknotes is discovered, it is all too recognisably of the moment, brilliantly exposed in sparkling text, set with great skill by the composer and performed with gusto by the cast. When spin doctor Rhona (Aitken) arrives to save the day in abrasive fashion, we are left in no doubt that she is uninterested in saving either the skins or the reputations of her supposed paymasters. As in so many opera plots.

Perhaps the conceit of Attridge’s staging runs out of steam a little in the (shorter) second half, but it was already a stretch for the Papagena Aria and Duet from The Magic Flute that closed the first. The music, and ensemble performance, remains top drawer, even as it becomes lighter fare in the way these shows always conclude. These four singers are adaptable enough to give everything its most appropriate delivery – and they will be doing that from Thurso to Dumfries and Aberdeen to Arisaig until the end of October.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Sally Jubb