Tag Archives: Catriona Hewitson

ERCU Messiah / MacMillan

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

TO the ears of those who have heard John Butt whisk the Dunedin Consort through Part One of Handel’s Messiah in well under an hour, Sir James MacMillan’s conducting debut of the work will not have sounded very pacey at all.

Truth to tell, the older members of Edinburgh Royal Choral Union – a choir that now boasts a healthy number of younger faces – have probably been asked to sing their annual New Year staple faster in some pre-pandemic performances. But if the unhurried approach MacMillan took denied his stated intention when he spoke to VoxCarnyx before the concert, that was probably for the best. What we heard was a very expressive, but never bombastic, Messiah where the story-telling took precedence over any darker liturgical message.

The choir can take a great deal of the credit for that, dispatching the trickier choruses with panache, only coming apart slightly in Part Two’s penultimate one, Let us break their bonds, but recovering quickly. Edinburgh’s Pro-Musica Orchestra were also a crucial factor in the light touch, fielding RSNO and Scottish Opera players alongside the freelances under the leadership of the Grit Orchestra’s Greg Lawson, and with ERCU director Michael Bawtree at the harpsichord and John Kitchen in a telling supporting role on the Usher Hall organ.

But the key ingredient for many in the completely filled hall on Monday afternoon was the quartet of young soloists, three of them – soprano Catriona Hewitson, mezzo Catherine Backhouse, and baritone Paul Grant – born in Edinburgh, and, alongside Royal Scottish Conservatoire-trained tenor Kieran White, all representatives of a new generation of highly-accomplished young voices.

For them, the old distinctions between big choral society Messiahs with hundreds of singers and historically-informed chamber choir recitals of the work are ancient history. What they have learned to do is give their own best performance of the oratorio, individually and collectively, in the most communicative way possible.

That is exactly what happened for the rapt audience in the capital from White’s gently-crooned “Comfort ye my people” onwards, Grant upping the ante with his sharply-enunciated shaking of all the nations, before Backhouse’s run of arias foretelling the birth of Christ, rich in her lower register with a delicious flourish at the end of Malachi’s “refiner’s fire”.

The narrative stepped up another notch with the shift to the Gospel texts and soprano Hewitson, who delivered the story as if she was announcing the good news for the very first time to an intimate circle of friends.

The flow of nice interpretative detail continued after the interval in Backhouse’s He Was Despised and the sequence of choruses from the same chapter of Isaiah. This choir demonstrates a dynamic range that is a rare skill among large amateur choruses, and MacMillan made full use of that.

Hewitson’s How beautiful are the feet was a little jewel amongst those choruses, and both she and Grant – on Why do the nations? and The trumpet shall sound – gave excellent accounts of the best known arias in Parts Two and Three.

With all the usual cuts to the full score, this was not an epic Messiah, and nor was it an especially “authentic” one, but it was a performance that everyone in the capacity house savoured from start to finish.

Keith Bruce

Festival Gala / Scottish Opera

Perth Concert Hall

The Perth Festival has changed markedly over its 50 years, but as it celebrates that Golden Jubilee, a determination to present opera as part of the annual event remains a commitment. This year’s staged performance arrives at Perth Theatre next week in the shape of Opera Bohemia’s Madama Butterfly, and for many years it provided the only Scottish opportunity to see English Touring Opera and some very fine singers at the start of their careers. Before that John Currie masterminded the festival’s own bespoke productions, but in 1972 it was Alexander Gibson’s Scottish Opera company who brought two productions to the first festival, so it was fitting the national company provided this year’s opening gala concert.

Fitting, but perhaps also a little surprising, in that Scottish Opera has its hands full at the moment, with the revival of Don Giovanni newly opened in Glasgow and its own 60th anniversary season just announced. That meant the orchestra, conductor Stuart Stratford, and one of the quintet of young vocal talent on stage had been performing the previous evening in the Theatre Royal with only the smallest overlap in the repertoire they played in the Fair City.

That Don Giovanni duet, La ci darem la mano, teamed young mezzo Lea Shaw, who sings Zerlina in the touring production, with Jonathan McGovern, who takes over the title role from June 9. It opened a Mozart sequence that also featured Eleanor Dennis as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and McGovern duetting with Catriona Hewitson as the Magic Flute’s Papageno and Papagena.

After the interval, that section was mirrored by the music of Puccini where the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut was bracketed by Hewitson singing O mio babbini caro from Gianni Schicchi and McGovern the very much less often heard Questo amor, vergogna mia from the composer’s early Edgar.

Neither of those parts of the substantial programme included the undoubted star of the evening, for all the quality of the singing throughout. Scotland’s Cardiff Singer of the World winner, Catriona Morison, was a compelling presence whenever she was on stage as well as being, with Stratford, an architect of the shape of the evening.

Her music was all in French and German, beginning with a sequence from Bizet’s Carmen that also involved Hewitson and Shaw as Frasquita and Mercedes, and then McGovern singing the Toreador’s song. Hewitson also partnered her in music from Massenet’s Werther and provided the Sandman to her Evening Hymn with Dennis as Hansel and Gretel. Those three also brought the programme to a close with music from Strauss’s Rosenkavalier which was, apparently, as much a treat for some members of the orchestra as the audience.

In fact the instrumentalists had the meatiest music of the night, in the instrumental interludes, in the appropriate opening fanfare of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and then the Overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, which began the second half. After all its trials and tribulations, the opera orchestra is currently at the top of its game.

For them, and for Perth Festival, this opening gala ticked a lot of boxes, and admirably included some more unusual music alongside the famous hits, even if that meant some tricky leaps in style, pace and tone, for the listener as much as the performers. Those structural flaws perhaps make it more difficult to berate the citizenry of Perth for failing to fill more of the seats.

Keith Bruce

Sponsored by Brewin Dolphin

Picture: Catriona Morison by Fraser Band

Amicus Orchestra / Larsen-Maguire

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

After appearing as a member of the New Antonine Brass at Drygate in Glasgow four days earlier (see VoxCarnyx review), Scottish Opera Orchestra horn Lauren Reeve-Rawlings was also soloist-to-the-rescue for Sunday’s concert by the Amicus Orchestra after RSNO Principal Christopher Gough tested positive for Covid.

For a non-professional outfit like this one – some musicians now in non-playing roles in Scottish music, many players acquainted through involvement in the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in their younger days – last-minute changes of repertoire are not an option, so Reeve-Rawlings stepping up to play a comparative rarity like Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No 1 really did save the day.

There is plenty conversation between the soloist and sections of the orchestra in the work, and conductor Catherine Larsen-Maguire ensured that their last-minute introduction to one another was never an issue. Articulate and fluid, Reeve-Rawlings brought a poised and relaxed approach to her role.

The involvement of the conductor with this orchestra in recent years has audibly raised its game. That was obvious both in the programme, culminating in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and the choice of venue. The sparkling acoustic of this “new” auditorium offers no hiding places – everyone has to be at the top of their game.

The quality of the listening on stage was clear as the programme unfolded. At the beginning of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture there was some wayward intonation in the lower strings, but that had vanished by the slow movement of the Mahler, when it might have been more of a problem.

Quality performances in the wind section were apparent in the Beethoven and across the whole concert, and the orchestra’s first horn James Goodenough richly deserved his solo bow for his playing in the symphony.

Soprano Catriona Hewitson, a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist soon to be seen as Tytania in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was giving her debut performance of Das himmlische Leben in the work’s final movement, but smart money would bet on it being the first of many. Of all the composer’s use of the songs of the Das Knaben Wunderhorn collection, this is probably the audience favourite, and it was easy to hear how it will surely become a calling-card for the Edinburgh singer.

If Mahler is a bold choice for an amateur orchestra, the transparency of the composer’s intentions also make it a fruitful one for a relationship that is clearly working as well as that of Larsen-Maguire with Amicus. This was a concert of which they can all be justly proud.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Catriona Hewitson by Julie Howden

The Puccini Collection

Caird Hall, Dundee

It is likely that this one-off in what is arguably Scotland’s grandest and most under-used concert hall had its singular shape dictated by its financial foundations, but it did seem a bit of a missed opportunity that only Sunday’s ticket-holders were able to enjoy it. Scottish Opera has blazed a trail for filmed performances of high standard during the pandemic, and this brisk trot through the catalogue of Giacomo Puccini would have been an excellent addition to that list, not to mention being very well timed if things are about to take a turn for the worse once again.

For all its excellent content – and it was often very good indeed – the event did fall between stools in other ways too. As conductor Stuart Stratford conceded right at the start, it featured not a note from Madam Butterfly, which could only be a deficiency – any Puccini Collection without Butterfly is surely incomplete.

For most Tayside ticketholders the focus was surely chiefly on the soloists – sopranos Sinead Campbell-Wallace and Catriona Hewitson, tenors David Junghoon Kim and Fraser Simpson, and baritone Roland Wood – but really the concert belonged in the sequence of Sunday events in Glasgow and Edinburgh where Stratford has showcased the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, and his introductions to the music reflected that. It seems likely there was little rehearsal time in the performance venue, however, and initially the big voices of both Campbell-Wallace and Wood were swamped by the orchestra in the extracts from Manon Lescaut and Tosca, although a better balance was achieved after the interval.

That was never the case for Kim, however, whose Scottish Opera debut this was, and whose glorious voice encouraged hopes of a full role with the company soon. The fact that the programme ended with his solo Nessun Dorma – the only music from Turandot – suggests that Stratford is well aware of his quality, and also effectively ended any idea the audience might have had of requesting an encore.

In the second half the big offering was Act III of La Boheme, featuring everyone bar Simpson, whose sole contribution had been a cameo as Spoletta in a segment of Act II of Tosca. With instrumental offerings from Manon and La Villi featuring the orchestra – including an early spotlight on front desk string soloists – there was also a solo spot for Emerging Artist Catriona Hewitson, whose top notes as Magda in La rondine were a joy.

Something for everyone then, but also a somewhat jumbled bill of fare as a programme, built around the experience of Campbell-Wallace and Wood in Scottish Opera’s 2019 Tosca and having another high spot in their duet as Minnie and Jack Rance from La fanciulla del West. Taken as a grander version of the company’s popular Opera Highlights tours, it was a show that sent its customers home well-satisfied.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Fraser Band

Scottish Opera Live

SCOTTISH OPERA: Live from South Lanarkshire
Rutherglen Town Hall

On 14 March last year, Rutherglen Town Hall hosted Opera Highlights, the annual tour by Scottish Opera in which a small concert party of singers and pianist present a structured selection of operatic numbers to community audiences around smaller Scottish venues. It was to prove Rutherglen’s last public event before lockdown. Thus their delight in hosting a filmed “night at the opera”, Live in South Lanarkshire, now available to view on Scottish Opera’s website.  

It features two of the company’s Emerging Artist singers, soprano Catriona Hewitson and mezzo-soprano Margo Arsane, with head of music Derek Clark at the piano. The programme is more compact than usual, extending only from Mozart to Puccini, and the ensemble is halved in size from the familiar quartet. But where it loses in scope, variety and that all-essential platform intimacy, it gains from the charming personal introductions by the artists to each and every song.

Both singers carry that charisma into their individual performances: Hewitson’s ringing contributions moulded with shapely conviction in Mozart, Puccini (the ever-popular “O mia babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi) and Reynaldo Hahn; Arsane’s mezzo voice producing a broodier, deeper tessitura contrast in numbers from Bizet’s Carmen, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and more Mozart.

When they get together – in duets by Offenbach, Delibes (the famous Flower duet) and Humperdinck’s “Brother, come and dance with me” as a gleeful finale – the synergy is delightful, and Clark’s empathetic pianism always a reliable mainstay. While it’s not the all-embracing Opera Highlights we’re used to, it’s enough to keep our mouths watering for the eventual return to the real live experience.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.scottishopera.org.uk

Image: Margo Arsane in Live in South Lanarkshire. Scottish Opera 2021. Credit Beth Chalmers