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.
From the flashing of the house-lights, thunder sound effects and appearance of a masked figure behind the gauze at the beginning of the overture, there is a Hammer Horror kitsch element to Sir Thomas Allen’s Gothic Venice-set Don Giovanni, Simon Higlett’s clever adaptable designs for the Theatre Royal’s restricted space beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan. Even the chorus scene of Zerlina and Masetto’s pre-nup party is very monochrome, and only Kitty Whately’s Donna Elvira costume – is her character choosing to be a scarlet woman? – provides a flash of colour.
That scenic palette is, however, in stark contrast to almost every other element of a subtle production. Starting in the pit, where natural trumpets sit alongside modern horns, and the continuo playing is superbly balanced with the orchestra’s big dramatic moments, this an evening in which nothing is over-played. Giovanni can be performed very effectively as melodrama, but this narrative staging is much more interested in realism, even soap opera – in a good way.
All the central characters are believably human, with the inevitable exception of Keel Watson’s stocky vengeful Commendatore, who spends most of the evening cast in stone, after his initial appearance as a worried father. The physical balance between Zachary Altman’s miserable but venal Leporello and Roland Wood’s cavalier, single-minded Don Giovanni is pretty much ideal, which is often not the case. That casting common-sense runs through the principal roles, with Whately at once the most authoritative of the women and the most vulnerable, and Korean soprano Hye-Houn Lee, in glorious voice as Donna Anna, somehow revelling in her victimhood. Completing a top trio of female performances, Lea Shaw, who is in her second year as a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist, grows more confident in each role she undertakes, and is both blowsy and naïve as Zerlina.
Besides Altman, the other company debuts come from Emyr Wyn Jones as Masetto and Pablo Bemsch as Don Ottavio – Zerlina’s low-born fiancé likeable but dim, Donna Anna’s effete courtier equally useless but whose equivocal arias are exceptionally well sung.
With the focus clearly on the ensemble work from trio to septet, no-one pitches for the applause in their solos, and given the liveliness of the show elsewhere, some of these stand-and-sing moments seem the weakest elements, regardless of the quality of the singing. By comparison, the end of Act 1, when the stage is full of distractions to cover Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina, including an early ghostly appearance by the Commendatore, is quite masterly, and the perfect set up for the intricate music of that septet.
The stage-craft of Allen and his cast, with choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones and James Fleming and Gary Connery directing fights and stunts, is top drawer, and even the sub-Cyrano business of Giovanni and Leporello swapping clothes and identities at the start of Act 2 is dispatched with casual ease.
While there is never any doubt who is villain of the piece – Wood is consumed by flames and booed at the curtain call – no-one escapes censure in Da Ponte’s libretto or in this production. In the closing sextet, often omitted in years gone by, they sing that Giovanni’s death was a fair result for his evil life. The ambiguity in the air is whether their share of culpability might also prove a stumbling block on the path to the Pearly Gates.
Performance sponsored byMiller Samuel Hill Brown. Touring to Inverness, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
Picture: Roland Wood (Don Giovanni) and Lea Shaw (Zerlina) by James Glossop
Alex Reedijk and Stuart Stratford tell Keith Bruce about the company’s new season
Recognising the nation’s collective slow recovery after Covid, Scottish Opera’s General Director Alex Reedijk emphasised the rude health of his company, in its 60th anniversary year, when he launched its first full season following the pandemic.
His words were peppered with metaphors from the gym, as he talked of “new muscles” built during the health emergency that bring confidence to work presented outside conventional theatres, and of ScotOp being happy to undertake the “heavy lifting” in developing new productions on which other companies are happy to come aboard as co-producers.
The two shows he was referring to are the boldest projects on the new slate of work, which opens with the current revival of Don Giovanni in Sir Thomas Allen’s 2013 production, touring to Inverness, Edinburgh and Aberdeen after the Glasgow performances.
It is followed in August by Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, performed in a specially-constructed tented venue behind the company’s production studios in Glasgow’s Edington Street, on a space now styled “New Rotterdam Wharf”. The production’s precursor in the company’s repertoire is the promenade staging of Pagliacci in Paisley in July 2018 rather than either of the Edington Street car-park operas, La boheme and Falstaff, it mounted while theatres were closed.
“We are using what we’ve learned about the robustness of the art form, on a piece that occupies a really important place in the life of Scottish Opera,” said Reedijk.
The “Scottish Opera version” is regarded as the go-to score of Candide. It was made in the 1980s with the approval of the composer, who was present in Glasgow, by his student John Mauceri, the company’s music director at the time.
“It is about displaced people and we are working with the Maryhill Integration Network to recruit members of the community chorus, which will team 80 volunteers with 20 professional singers,” added current music director Stuart Stratford.
Stratford has plenty of experience in this type of work, having worked with director Graham Vick in Birmingham Opera and with Tete-a-Tete Opera. Freed from the restrictions of Covid regulations, the potential audience for each of Candide’s half-dozen performances will still be limited to 400, that being the number that Vick demonstrated could reasonably be shepherded and stewarded to each of the performing stages without slowing the action.
“I loved working with Graham Vick on those shows,” said Stratford, “and hopefully there are people who will feel able to come to something that is well-ventilated and semi-outdoors who might still have misgivings about visiting a theatre.”
Reedijk has plans to have a performance filmed, although no specific platform is signed up to broadcast it. That was a tactic the company used for the recent production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, recently transmitted on BBC Four and watched by over a quarter of a million people around the world.
November sees Scottish Opera back in the Theatre Royal and Festival Theatre with what will be the UK’s first staged production of Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar.
“It premiered in 2003, and is a series of reflections on the life of Federico Garcia Lorca,” said Stratford. “It has been done in static way as an oratorio in London, but the music is unbelievably dramatic.”
With Latin-American percussion in the pit and flamenco dancers on the stage, choreographer Deborah Colker will direct a show that has been developed in partnership with Opera Ventures, who were also involved in Greek in 2017 and Breaking the Waves in 2019.
“Those shows have made possible co-production partnerships with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Detroit Opera as well as with Welsh National Opera,” said Reedijk.
Like much of the season Scottish Opera can now unveil, Ainadamar was in the works before the pandemic.
“The Gondoliers was delayed because of Covid, and the opening for A Midsummer Night’s Dream was stopped because of it. Ainadamar we had been cooking up with Opera Ventures, and Il Trittico we’d been talking about with David McVicar since before the lockdown,” said Reedijk.
The Puccini triple-bill will reach the Scottish stage in March, before which Sir David McVicar’s last two Scottish Opera productions will have opened in Santa Fe (Falstaff) and Los Angeles (Pelleas et Melisande).
Also a co-production with WNO, Il trittico has never been staged in its entirety in Scottish Opera’s 60 years, nor has McVicar previously directed it. Il tabarro (The Cloak), Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) and the comic Gianni Schicchi are distinct and contrasting stories, but McVicar is adopting an ensemble approach with a cast that includes company stalwarts Roland Wood, Sinead Campbell-Wallace and Karen Cargill and shared elements in the set design by Charles Edwards.
With a dinner-length interval before the concluding tale of the trilogy, Scottish Opera is selling Il trittico as an epic night out, a visual theatrical feast and a big work out for the orchestra. As with all but the last of the staged productions in the new season, Stratford is conducting.
For that final show in May 2023, Australian-Chinese conductor Dane Lam is on the podium for Bizet’s Carmen. Sung in English, it will be directed by John Fulljames, director of the much-lauded 2020 staging of John Adams’ Nixon in China, with that show’s Madame Mao, Korean soprano Hye-Houn Lee, in the cast, and Justina Gringyte in the title role, as well as parts for four of the company’s current Emerging Artists: Zoe Drummond, Lea Shaw, Osian Wyn Bowen, and Colin Murray.
“Coming out of Covid we wanted to demonstrate ambition,” said Reedijk. “So there is work that we know audiences will be interested in like Carmen and Don Giovanni, but also something of the scale of Trittico, the artistic diversity of Ainadamar, and the curiosity of Candide for people to respond to.”
Nor is that the full story of course. Already announced are new dates for the company’s travelling outdoor shows, Pop-Up Opera, and two tours of Opera Highlights to community halls across Scotland. Building on the success of the Puccini Collection concert in Dundee’s Caird Hall, which incorporated long scenes from the composer’s operas in concert, The Verdi Collection will play in Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Stratford will direct the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and sections of Otello, Don Carlos and La Forza del Destino will feature.
There will also be a staged concert performance of Massenet rarity Therese at East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival and in Perth Concert Hall in September, directed by Roxana Haines with Estonian Anu Tali conducting. Haines also directs the Scottish Opera Young Company’s summer show, Rubble, composed by Gareth Williams with a libretto by Johnny McKnight, and Young Company Artistic Director Chris Gray conducting. And Gray MDs a touring revival of the Lliam Paterson’s opera for babies, BambinO, with Charlotte Hoather and Samuel Pantcheff.
All of which means that Scottish Opera will more than achieve the aim of its CEO that it visits 60 places in Scotland to mark that anniversary year. “We are in good order, and in good health,” said Reedijk.
General booking for Scottish Opera’s new season opens on Tuesday, May 31. More information is available at scottishopera.org.uk.
Picture: Scottish Opera’s 1988 production of Candide
Composer Jonathan Dove talks to KEITH BRUCE about Flight and a possible Scots premiere for his newest work
Although American Jake Heggie, less than two years his junior, out-scores him internationally, on this side of the Atlantic composer Jonathan Dove is the most produced contemporary opera composer of his generation.
Among performers, and some directors, that status might come with airs and graces, and even diva-like behaviour. Composers? Not so much.
So when the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s head of opera studies Philip White requested a reduced score of one of Dove’s biggest hits, Flight, to meet the strictures of social distancing in the pit of the New Athenaeum Theatre in Glasgow during the pandemic, the composer immediately sat down and re-wrote his work for 19 players.
In the event, further restrictions made it impossible to stage the production at all until earlier this month, when it happened to coincide with the RSNO and theatre company Visible Fictions taking a newer Dove work, Gaspard’s Foxtrot, setting the children’s stories of Zeb Soanes, out on the road to primary schools as well as presenting it on the orchestra’s digital platform.
There, in a nutshell, was the range of Jonathan Dove’s work for the stage, and the main ingredients of his compositional life, if Scots music-lovers were minded to explore it, although his full catalogue stretches into many other areas of orchestral and chamber music, as well as songs.
“I am always happiest if I have an opera project on the go or on the horizon,” he told me on the day James Bonas’s production of Flight at the RCS finally opened. “I describe myself as a musical story-teller, even when it is not an opera, like Gaspard’s Foxtrot with Zeb Soanes and the RSNO.
“The RSNO co-commissioned it and they’ve done a lot with it. Writing songs and choral pieces is also story-telling, but it is a Peter and the Wolf kind of piece – that is very obviously the model.”
As for Flight, it is a work that has been performed all over the world since 1998, with Scottish Opera’s adapting an Opera Holland Park staging in 2018.
“There have been two productions this year in the US alone, one in Utah and one in Dallas, and over the years people have asked for a slim down version, so I knew there was some demand for that. But I hadn’t had time and I didn’t want anyone else to do it, because I didn’t trust them to do it well.
“I came to Glasgow specifically to hear if the new orchestration works, and I think it helps that it is a bit leaner for young voices. I am obviously very pleased that Flight is seen in conservatoires. There is something for every voice type in it: a stratospheric soprano, a lyric soprano, a counter tenor and a bass alongside tenor, baritone and mezzo-soprano.
“It is quite a good showcase, although that wasn’t what I was thinking when I wrote it. For me the airport was a sort of microcosm of a community. But you get know these people but you also get to hear them singing in quite a lot of states and moods, so you can hear what people can do.”
Making the reduced version of the orchestral score took Dove back to his own beginnings as an opera composer, and to memories of the man who was a mentor in the process, director Graham Vick, who died last summer after contracting Covid-19.
“A very important part of my musical education in my twenties was re-scoring masterpieces of the operatic repertoire for his touring company. I rescored La Cenerentola, The Magic Flute, Falstaff, La boheme and The Ring for orchestras of between 15 and 18 players.
“Graham was a shockingly late victim of the pandemic, just when you thought the world was getting safer. It was really only after he died that I saw clearly how much he had changed my life. Re-scoring masterpieces of the repertoire and seeing him direct them was an amazing education.
“The most important experience was one particular production, an Opera North outreach project with West Side Story in a disused cotton-mill. That production introduced me to so many things. At that point I was assistant chorus-master at Glyndebourne, but the experience of working with 200 people from the community in that production was a revelation – how hungry they were for it.
“That was very different from working with a professional opera chorus – they’ve trained for that, they know that they can do it. That show introduced me to community opera, and to site-specific work and promenade performance. At that moment I never wanted to see another proscenium-arch production, because it was so much more involving.”
If Dove has now rowed back from that position it was not before he had taken the lessons of Vick’s work and applied it to his own practice – a journey that led to his breakthrough opera.
“I wondered what it would be like if the community cast were telling their own story and not a New York story. Around the same time, Glyndebourne was thinking about an opera involving a couple of school and I said: ‘Why not involve a whole town?’ So we did that in Hastings with about 200 people, including any musicians and performers that wanted to be in it. There was the Boys Brigade band, there was a symphony orchestra, there was a yodelling harmonica player and Morris dancers.
“Another one followed in Ashford where there was an accordion club and a guitar orchestra and a rock band, and then one in Peterborough, and I found things for them all to do, and it always felt like the most unquestionably worthwhile thing that I was doing.
“The total experience of everyone in it, and what they learned from it – that was my road to Damascus experience. Those three community operas for Glyndebourne led directly to them commissioning Flight, which is still the work of mine that people most often tell me that they have seen.
“So it was from Graham I got the belief in opera as a medium whose importance should not be restricted to opera houses: that mission that opera is for everyone. He was a unique spirit.”
The relationship with the director continued, notably with 2012’s adaptation of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream for Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company. Dove’s other operas have drawn on classic novels (Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), the troubled life of Buzz Aldrin (Man on the Moon) and the death of Princess Diana.
Parallel with those have been the works for young people, from Tobias and the Angel in 1999, via The Adventures of Pinocchio in 2007 to 2015’s The Monster in the Maze, based on the classical tale of Theseus and the Minotaur and created in partnership with conductor Sir Simon Rattle.
“It is the opera of mine that was been translated most. It was a co-commission between the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Aix festival, so there were three productions just weeks apart, all conducted by Simon Rattle, in German, English and French.
“It was also done in Taiwan in Cantonese and Taiwanese and I couldn’t get to that, but I have seen it in Swedish, in Portuguese in Lisbon and in Catalan in Barcelona, where it has now been done three times.”
The Dove children’s opera currently on his desk is for Zurich, based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, with Act 1 already completed.
Philip White’s students at the Conservatoire staged 2015’s post-Apocalypse The Day After as a sort of companion piece to the Scottish Opera Flight four years ago, and Dove’s most recent work for an adult audience, Marx in London, was first seen in Bonn and could be destined for a Scottish outing soon.
“Marx in London was the idea of director Jurgen Weber, who had directed an amazing production of an opera of mine, Swanhunter, written for an intended audience of teenagers. His idea was that Marx’s life was like a farce and that it would make a good comic opera.”
With a libretto by Charles Hart, whose past work includes Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, Marx in London premiered at the end of 2018, when it was co-produced by Scottish Opera. At the time there was speculation that the production might be seen in Scotland in 2020, and if it is still on the cards, Dove cannot confirm.
“Scottish Opera have made a financial commitment so it would be natural if they were the first to do it here,” he says. “There are still hopes that it will be staged in the not too distant future.”
Musicians from Scottish Opera Orchestra and its independent offshoot McOpera have amassed a powerhouse of Scots-based vocal and instrumental artists to stage a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in Glasgow this weekend. Proceeds will go to the Ukraine Crisis Appeal which is run by the British Red Cross Association’s Disasters Emergency Committee.
The performance, conducted by Scottish Opera’s head of music Derek Clark, takes place on Saturday evening in St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Great Western Road and features soloists who have starred in the recent run of highly-acclaimed Scottish Opera productions: soprano Catriona Hewitson, mezzo-soprano Sioned Gwen Davis, tenor Jamie MacDougall and bass John Molloy.
Chorus members are drawn from Scottish Opera, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and from the University of St Andrews. The venue has been made available free of charge by St Mary’s Cathedral and the event is supported by the Scots support charity for service veterans, Bravehound.
Violinist Katie Hull, who has helped spearhead the initiative, and who will lead the orchestra on Saturday, explained: “Mozart’s Requiem is a fitting work to reflect our cause to do what we can to raise funds for the humanitarian crisis that plagues Ukraine.
“Mozart passed away before he completed his Requiem, leaving that task to others – when we are faced with tragedy, everything and everyone else must continue, by imperfectly piecing together what is left. We invite everyone to come and join us in Glasgow’s West End to reflect in the music and give generously to our cause.”
Scottish Opera’s Russian double bill in Perth last week, which opened with a hearty burst of Ukraine’s operatic national anthem, was an informative insight into the minds of two very different musical giants and their operatic response to Pushkin texts.
First up was Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight, a somewhat slavish hour-long contraction of a play about a tragic family dispute. Then to the more diminutive Mavra and the comic abandon with which Stravinsky set his razor-sharp mind to a farcical plot about a boy, forbidden from seeing this girlfriend by her domineering mother, who poses – like Mrs Doubtfire – as the mother’s new housemaid.
Together they made a fine couple: Rachmaninov’s calorific orchestral score heaving with symphonic richness, its leanings to Wagnerian leitmotif and theatrical autonomy casting it in a quasi-cinematic role; Stravinsky’s nuclear chamber ensemble (despite a daunting backroom brass unit of four trumpets, three trombones and tuba) offering a tangy palate-cleanser motivated by fast-action pastiche.
Both were presented with minimal staging, the Scottish Opera Orchestra dominating the vast Perth performance space, in front of which the small respective casts conformed to the minimalist dramaturgy of director Laura Attridge. Where bare minimum action in The Miserly Knight (a chair each for the five singers with symbolic accessory – hat, scarf, whatever – to define each part) left us visually short-changed, any such economies in the Stravinsky (a dressing table as the singular prop, but fuller costuming) were effectively offset by significantly increased animation.
There was an issue with balance in the Rachmaninov, tenor Alexey Dolgov’s big opening as the Baron’s waster son, Albert, frequently neutered by the overpowering orchestra, but otherwise ardently delivered. To varying degrees that affected others in the five-strong cast, though the overall synergy made for a helpful appraisal of the work, its ingrained passion, also its turgid demeanour. The underlying perception, given the orchestral predominance, was of an imbedded symphony though hardly on a par with Rachmaninov’s real ones.
Fine singing, though, from the heroic Roland Wood, stepping in at the eleventh hour as the self-absorbed Baron, from Alasdair Elliott as the irksome moneylender Solomon, Alexey Gusev as the imperious Duke, and John Molloy as the pliable servant.
We were transported into a more colourful, wholly-satisfying world with the shorter Mavra, and an instrumental performance that moved quickly from its grounded opening to one of blistering heat and acid wit. The central pair – a frothy Anush Hoyhannisyan as Parasha and agile Alexey Gusev as the petulant Vassili – were a zingy, centrifugal force, around which Sarah Ping’s unreasonable mother and Lea Shaw’s concerned neighbour added their own distinctiveness to the frolicking nonsense. The central quartet was a pivotal showpiece.
This was a one-off performance, which is a shame as it deserves to have been exposed to a wider audience base.
If anyone is unsure of the interconnectedness of our modern world, the cast-list for this showcase of the talent currently being developed by the National Opera Studio, at the end of a week-long residency at Scottish Opera in Glasgow, would remove doubt. After all that has happened elsewhere during that week, the three sopranos performing in the eleven-strong vocal company hailed from Ukraine, Russia and Latvia.
It was not, in fact, necessary to dig deeply into the company biographies to see interconnectedness eloquently demonstrated. The sequence of music from nine different composers with substantial excerpts from half a dozen operas was not dissimilar in structure to Scottish Opera’s Opera Highlights packages, but with the orchestra, conducted by Head of Music Derek Clark, in the pit and nearly three times the number of voices, it was working at another level. The brilliance of director Emma Jenkins was to link the works with quite exceptional narrative and theatrical skill.
Her title referenced the Theatre of the Absurd, but in fact there was little anarchic or illogical about the package, with subjects like coupledom and marriage, dream-worlds, fairytales and the moon, popping up emblematically throughout the libretti. It was nigh impossible to avoid emitting an audible sigh of recognition when another echo of a previous aria appeared.
Korean baritone Josef Ahn was the master of ceremonies for the show, which was staged on Tom Piper’s set for the current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and included two extracts from Britten’s work, with counter-tenor Logan Lopez Gonzalez a sinister Oberon with a hint of Joel Gray in Cabaret. He came to that role via Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, as Yum-Yum singing The Moon and I, being fluffed-up by the half-dozen sopranos and mezzos.
The most dynamic of the latter group was Shakira Tsindos, who followed that with a strutting Alcina, with Joanna Harries as Ruggiero and Sian Griffiths as Bradamante. Lancashire tenor Philip Clieve may have played a supporting role throughout – to Laura Lolita Peresivana in Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tiresias, to Alexandra Chernenko in Martinu’s Julietta, and to Inna Husieva in Strauss’s Gypsy Baron – but he did so with commitment, style and a fine voice. Tenor Monwabisi Lindi and baritone Kamohelo Tsotesi, both from South Africa, completed the line-up and it would have been good to hear more of the full tones of the latter, beyond chorus duties.
This was always an ensemble performance however, from the choral Shostakovich “A Ride Around Moscow”, which bore a surprisingly resemblance to G&S, via the entire company’s collective role as Puck “putting a girdle about the earth in 40 minutes”, to the conga-like steam train out of Pompeii at the end of Offenbach’s King Carrot.
So, yes, there was surreality a-plenty, even if reality was never that far away. What was undeniable was the sheer infectious joy this international company brought to their ingenious performance.
It’s been two years in coming, but Dominic Hill’s new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Scottish Opera – an early casualty of the 2020 Covid lockdown – has been well worth the wait. What’s more, it’s a stimulatingly fresh take on an opera known more usually for its woodland magic and picture book characters. Yet in this version, set in a devastated landscape in the wake of the Second World War, Hill offers a darker reality.
What remains is a world divided between the ruling court elite and its underlings, the so-called mechanicals; but nonetheless one in which they have to co-exist, and do so under the protective cloak of the opera’s fantasy dreamworld. Tom Piper’s designs play a key role in this, an illusive world in which beds take flight and the action barely stops for breath.
The darkness persists, though, in such symbolic quirks as the sinister puppet replacement for the mute Indian boy, and the stark greyness of the children’s chorus, crowded together like monochrome urchins in a scene by Hogarth. They act and sing with chilling definition.
Hill’s approach may seek to expand the notion of universality in the opera’s message, but it successfully avoids corrupting the integrity of the individual characters and their combined dynamic.
Oberon, sung by counter tenor Lawrence Zazzo in this his Scottish Opera debut, is still a creepy specimen, but the emphasis is on his powers of persuasion, with the carelessly mischievous Puck (played with capricious energy by actor Michael Guest) to do his dirty work. Don’t be fooled by the visual greyness of his wife Tytania, as Catriona Hewitson’s keen soprano gives lustre and conviction to her queenly role.
Even with Theseus, dressed for his final act entrance as a military dictator, an overriding air of benevolence is warmly maintained, expressed through Jonathan Lemalu’s rich-seamed bass.
This is not a production in danger of suffocating under a weightily imposed message. Between them, the four young lovers and the irrepressible antics of the mechanicals preserve the opera’s infectious effervescence. Tenor Elgan Llÿr Thomas shines as the irrepressible Lysander, American mezzo soprano Lea Shaw as the head-strong Hermia, Jonathan McGovern cuts a suitably stoical Demetrius, and soprano Charlie Drummond the sadder, lovesick Helena.
When it comes to the mechanicals, this crazed gang of misfits really put on a show. As a team, their comic choreography had the opening night audience in stitches, not least David Shipley’s deftly hilarious, deliciously rude, portrayal as Bottom.
Great credit to Hill, too, that he allows this production to completely serve and illuminate Britten’s music. The calibrated transition from stillness to action at the very start is a masterstroke, paralleling the orchestra’s slithering glissandi. Beyond that magical moment, conductor Stuart Stratford and his Scottish Opera Orchestra continue to express the kaleidoscopic subtleties, and occasional irreverent parodies, that are the opera’s engine room.
Further performances at the Theatre Royal Glasgow (24 & 26 February) and Edinburgh Festival Theatre (1,3 & 5 March). Full booking information at www.scottishopera.org.uk
Director Dominic Hill tells Keith Bruce about his delayed production of Britten for Scottish Opera
The artistic director of Glasgow Citizens Theatre, Dominic Hill, should not really have been available to open a new production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Scottish Opera this month.
If all had gone according to plan, he would have been moving his company back into their home in the Gorbals after the theatre’s refurbishment. But then, if all had gone according to plan, his new staging of Britten’s take on Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy should have opened two years ago.
The combination of delays in the comprehensive re-modelling of the Citizens and the global pandemic has put Hill’s schedule through the mill – a situation many people will recognise, and appreciate the philosophical attitude the director seems able to bring to it.
“We hope that we’ll have the keys at the end of the year, and the first few months of 2023 will be fitting out before we open the doors late spring or early summer,” he says. “Fingers crossed.”
“Timing-wise it has worked out quite well,” he recognises. “We were meant to be getting into the theatre about now, but that’s been delayed by a year or so. In some ways the pandemic has been a blessing – there are worse times to be doing a refurbishment.”
Hill’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first major casualty of Scottish Opera’s programme when the pandemic struck. The cast and crew were on the final run-in to opening night when Covid closed all theatres that were not already dark as a result of a renovation programme.
“We were in rehearsal as it was all kicking off. We did the floor-run and then we were told it wasn’t going to happen,” Hill remembers. “We did think we’d get into the theatre and at least tech the show, so we all went home saying, ‘See you on Thursday’, and then even that couldn’t happen.
“It was a strange thing because we never got to say goodbye to anybody, it just finished.”
That sense of unfinished business was with the director for two years as the opera company pressed on with an imaginative programme of filmed and outdoor work that was an example of determined response to the crisis. Hill’s production had to wait until conventional presentation was back on the agenda.
“It’s great that it is one of the first shows to come back,” says the director. “We left the rehearsal room and the set was up, and we’ve come back and it looked as if it had just been there for the last two years.
“In some ways it felt like nothing had happened, but at the same time most of the cast are new. So it is a bit like a revival as well as being a continuation of a rehearsal process with different people – a weird hybrid thing. But I guess I’m just thinking about it as if we are doing it from scratch really.”
That does not mean that all the work of two years ago was wasted.
“We are making some changes and tweaks and there are a couple of scenes staged differently, but on the whole it is the same production. I watched a rather blurry video of that floor-run and thought what we’d done was OK, so it is pretty much as envisaged originally. Most of the mechanicals – apart from Starveling and Flute – have come back, and one of the lovers [soprano Charlie Drummond] was in it last time, but everyone else is new, so it feels like a new cast.”
Coming to Britten’s work from his “day job” in the theatre, Hill is acutely aware of the opera’s relationship to the play, and the fact that it is much closer than some other musical versions of Shakespeare.
“Compared to something like Macbeth and Falstaff, where the libretto is filtered through Italian translations of Shakespeare, you’ve got Shakespeare’s text and it needs honouring as something in itself.
“It needs to be approached with the same sort of enquiry and detail that one brings to directing the original text. There are scenes that need directing as pieces of theatre with character motivation and staging issues to be addressed. I hope we have approached it with rigour towards the libretto as well as the music.”
Hill is conscious that such an approach makes particular demands of his cast.
“The singers have what is not always the easiest music, and have to marry that to a dramatic impulse. It is a very physical production, particularly for the lovers, with a lot of rolling around and fighting, and the choreography of that needs learning as well as their brains engaging with the technical demands of the music.”
The director is determined to have the advantages of both the opera and his knowledge of the play available to the production, as well as some reflection of the circumstances of its composition.
“The music of the forest world, the dream world, I find absolutely exquisite, and it has a kind of otherness that can only be created through music. But one thing I have done is taken the structure of the play a little more, so we begin at the end of Act 1 Scene 1 of the play, as it were, and stay in the court for a little bit longer.”
It is the music, however, that dictates the stage world that the production inhabits.
“It is based on Tytania and Oberon’s duet about the state of the world, so it is a ravaged and muddy kind of world. It is a post-war world to which Theseus has returned with his war-bride, and that picks up on the post-war world in which Britten wrote it.”
Scottish Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has three performances at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on February 22, 24 and 26 and three at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh on March 1, 3 and 5.
Rehearsal picture by Jane Barlow shows Lea Shaw as Hermia and Jonathan McGovern as Demetrius
Without wishing to diminish the takings of florists and confectioners in North East Scotland when Scottish Opera’s four-singers-and-a-piano tour arrives there shortly, this new show has to be the perfect Valentine’s treat.
Told in rhyming couplets, the narrative director John Savournin has used to frame Derek Clark’s selection of arias is of love’s rocky road, and eventual happy resolution, as it is experienced by a band of travelling players. Before the interval, this features a huge chunk from the end of Act 1 of Puccini’s La boheme, as Rudolfo and Mimi discover one another. Add that to the inclusion of most of Act 3 in the recent Puccini Gala in Dundee, following the excellent outdoor production necessitated by the pandemic, and it is clearly an opera that the company cannot resist.
Fortunately, Clark has included some less obvious music, of which a trio from Mozart’s Idomeneo and baritone Dan Shelvey, the show’s emcee, as the Pierrot Franz in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt are first-half hits, while the whole evening concludes with a characteristic flourish of Die Fledermaus and the operettas of Sigmund Romberg.
The vaudeville tone is maintained throughout by everyone on stage, and in the piano style of music director Mark Sandon, with Janis Hart’s set and costuming (no trellis this year!) crucial to the framework. The inclusion of composer Lucie Treacher’s commission, setting scenes from Woolf’s To A Lighthouse, may sit outside the main narrative, but the company made it work in an ensemble performance of some fascinating music that was another highlight of the evening.
As always, this touring show, which visits everywhere from the Outer Hebrides to Dumfries and Galloway, is chiefly about the singers, and this quartet are particularly well-matched. Shelvey is Luiz in the company’s current Gondoliers and he seems particularly comfortable in the lighter material. Scottish soprano Monica McGhee proves equally at home with Handel’s Cleopatra and Emmerich Kalman’s When I hear those gypsy fiddles.
It is especially important though, that these shows feature former Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Shengzhi Ren and Margo Arsane whose time on the career-making project was disrupted by the health emergency. The Chinese tenor has a terrific instrument and shows a real flair for comedy here – when he enunciates a line in music-theatre RP it sounds especially plummy.
Mezzo Arsane, meanwhile, is the complete show-woman, swapping gender throughout on the broadest range of repertoire, and adding guitar, violin and the spoons to the instrumental mix.
If this programme has a flaw it is in an over-reliance on solos, when the foursome work so well as an ensemble and in different combinations when asked to. Their choreography is pretty good too.
One other thought (and it is an old bugbear, I admit). As these shows are now through-conceived by their directors, it seems increasingly inaccurate for them all to go out under the bland “Opera Highlights” banner. This one in particular, with its caravan set and carnival tone, would be well-suited to the old Opera-Go-Round name – and its reintroduction would be a fitting tribute to the late Graham Vick who invented the concept when he was with Scottish Opera in the 1980s, and who died from Covid complications last summer.
Scottish Opera’s Opera Highlights is on the road across Scotland until March 19. Tour details on the company website, scottishopera.org.uk
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.
If added value is what you were after this week with Scottish Opera, it was there in spades with Wednesday’s minimally-staged performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited, inserted as a one-off addition to the current Glasgow run of The Gondoliers (reviewed separately in VoxCarnyx).
It’s a work usually confined to historical reference books – even then it can be hard to find – given that it never quite grabbed the attention of opera companies generally more tempted by mainstream G&S favourites. Scottish Opera wanted to make a case for its worth, and did so with considerable conviction by editing its notorious prolixity down to an acceptable two-and-a-half hours and utilising the lively cast that was already in town for The Gondoliers.
Economical creativity even saw Dick Bird’s picture-book set for the mythical Barataria scenes in The Gondoliers reutilised as the permanent backdrop for the equally mythical island of Utopia. Yet there was nothing remotely static about his performance, Stuart Maunder’s shrewdly imaginative direction giving his cast plenty scope for expression without embracing a full theatrical presentation.
As such, the focus on the music was intensified. Sullivan clearly took the opportunity in this late collaboration with Gilbert to expand his stylistic fingerprint. Yes, lighter-weight tra-la-las are aplenty, but so too are moments where the composer effuses with a depth and glow that is almost, if not quite, Wagnerian. The juxtaposition is, paradoxically, both strength and weakness, as are the whimsical snatches of popular reference – a recurring Rule Britannia motif, for instance – that colour the score.
But accepting Utopia, Limited for what it is – a satire on the pompous protectionism of the British Empire and hypocrisy of its political establishment, which rings an ironic bell today – there was much to be enjoyed in this slick, refined version.
The cast gelled magnificently, no doubt inspired by their current collegiate familiarity as the Scottish Opera Gondoliers team. Ben McAteer, now the main man, presented King Paramount of the mythical Pacific outpost that so desires “Anglification” as an endearingly hapless survivor. Elie Laugharne glowed brilliantly as his daughter Princess Zara, alongside the complementary charm of sisters Nekaya (Catriona Hewitson) and Kalyba (Sioned Gwen Davies).
Yvonne Howard embraced the glowing sophistication of Lady Sophy with knowing composure. Arthur Bruce and Richard Suart were a dream double act as Utopian wise men Phantis and Scaphio, Suart’s snarling nonchalance neatly countered by Bruce’s winning, agile impatience.
Among the British advisory delegation, the so-called “Flowers of Progress”, the we-know-it-all mantle was gloatingly assumed, Mark Nathan as Mr Goldbury and William Morgan as Captain Battleaxe key among its numerous personnel.
A solid chorus and a Scottish Opera Orchestra much enjoying the frequent opulence of Sullivan’s music under the baton of Derek Clark were equally at ease in this judiciously edited performance of an opera that may have undoubted flaws, but which, in time-honoured G&S spirit, sets out chiefly to entertain.
Scottish Opera’s Utopia, Limited is repeated at Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 5 Nov. Full information at www.scottishopera.org.uk
While Scottish Opera’s decision to mark its return to full-scale live production with Gilbert and Sullivan will likely raise legitimate questions about the company’s artistic priorities, there’s no questioning the boldness of Stuart Maunder’s directorial approach in this brand new, all-guns-blazing version of The Gondoliers.
The mirth and excitement oozing from the first night audience said it all: it’s just great to be back in a real opera theatre, guffawing at the sheer escapism of a ridiculously silly story hammed up amid colourfully extravagant sets and costumes, and in the case of one gentleman near me, humming to the tunes he knew, and some he clearly didn’t.
From the outset, Maunder’s unspoilt vision is laid unapologetically before us: a panoramic Venice (Dick Bird’s elaborate picture postcard sets) filled with frolicking maidens and on-heat Gondoliers, from which unfolds a typical Gilbertian tale of relational complexities, unwitting entanglements and a conveniently convoluted denouement that, in the blink of an eye, sorts everything out.
And here is a cast that enters fully into the spirit, tweely exaggerating its comical naivety, caressing its gentle satire, and proving Sullivan’s melodic invention to be so much more than musical doggerel.
A gleeful Ellie Laugharne and mellower Sioned Gwen Davies bring complementary charm to the playful roles of Gianetta and Tessa, affectionate matches for the boyish exuberance of their respective Gondolier hubbies, the excitably delicate William Morgan as Marco and firm-footed Mark Nathan as Giuseppe. Dan Shelvey as Luiz and Catriona Hewitson as Casilda come late to the party, but make their presence firmly felt.
There’s vintage G&S bluster from veteran D’Oyly Carter Richard Suart as the spluttering Duke of Plaza-Toro, and Yvonne Howard as his Duchess, splendidly regal, but dressed in so vast a panniered dress one assumes its extensive wingspan conceals wheels to facilitate accompanying its wearer. Ben McAteer, as the pompous Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra, completes the ‘establishment’ line-up.
But this is ultimately a triumph of team work, right down to many other incidental roles, the flamboyant choreography and vocal animation of the chorus, and an orchestral performance under music director Derek Clark that bristles with sunshine and character. There were minor hesitancies on opening night, but nothing that can’t sort itself out as this fine production beds in.
The Gondoliers runs in Glasgow until 23 Oct; Edinburgh 28 Oct – 6 Nov; Inverness 10-13 Nov; London 30 Mar – 2 Apr. Full details at www.scottishopera.org.uk
Even when hidden by masks, it’s impossible to ignore the pleasure concertgoers are feeling as live performances gradually reopen. That sense of release was self-evident from the pre-concert buzz among the Greenock audience at this week’s opening location for Scottish Opera’s Autumn Highlights Tour, which now moves on to halls and theatres as far afield as Peebles, Ayr, St Andrews, Stornoway and Ballachulish.
The formula is a familiar one. Four singers and a piano present a sequence of arias and ensembles from across the operatic repertoire, given a connecting thread by the careful choice of music and simply animated stage direction. Between them, Scottish Opera’s head of music Derek Clarke and guest director Jeanne Pansard-Besson have concocted a theme that illustrates the stormy emotions experienced within human relationships.
So we have ensemble works to open and close the hour-long entertainment – the misplaced optimism of “Over the dark blue waters” from Weber’s Oberon and bottle-popping fizz of Johann Strauss II’s “Champagne Song” from Die Fledermaus – between which, music from Handel and Mozart to Bizet and Tchaikovsky presents ample pick’n’mix opportunities to showcase the singers in various combinations.
And these are young singers who embrace the occasion diligently, two of whom – mezzo soprano Lea Shaw and tenor Glen Cunningham – are newly-engaged Scottish Opera Emerging Artists. Former Emerging Artist, Russian baritone Alexey Gusev, and Welsh soprano Meinir Wyn Roberts (in her company debut) complete the set, working under the onstage piano direction of Fiona MacSherry.
They make the most of a somewhat historically-compressed playlist. It might have been more interesting to see the musical timeline extended either end beyond Handel and Strauss, perhaps with some Monteverdi and surely something from the 20th/21st centuries. Even so, there were delicious moments: Shaw finding rich sonority in music from Donizetti’s La favorita; Wyn Roberts and Cunningham enacting gentle tensions from Bizet’s Carmen; Alexey Gusev bringing a genuine Russian earthiness to Tchaikovsky. It was something of a novelty to hear the two men duetting in a serenade from the now mostly-forgotten Julius Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney.
If only there could have been more spark in an essentially simple staging that took too long to establish its own invigorating momentum. That will probably happen naturally as the tour progresses. But on opening night it was the musical performances that mostly captivated, aided by MacSherry’s valiant accompaniment, and despite a piano that sounded somewhat ropy.
As artistic life opens up and opera makes its gradual stage comeback, it’s vitally important to witness such a predominance of youth in Scottish Opera’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which received its live premiere at this year’s Lammermuir Festival. Roxana Haines’ ballsy new production – created initially for last December’s filmed version – lends itself well to such bright young things and the refreshing open-mindedness that comes as a consequence.
They are what makes a scintillating success of this opera, despite the convoluted nonsense that is its plot, and despite the fact that transferring Haines’ clever production ideas for the filmed format to live stage diminishes to an extent its previous edge. Rationalising the unlikely love entanglements as a modern-day reality TV show was, in the original media concept, a convincing hit. In the vastness of St Mary’s Church, and without the camera tricks to reinforce the message, its impact seemed diluted, at least visually.
The positive consequence was the immediacy of the performance. Here were singers responding as much to the audience’s close presence, its spontaneous applause, as to Mozart’s theatrical score. It helped that they were out front as first point of visual contact, the orchestra and chorus under music director Stuart Stratford stretching far into the darkened distance behind. Minimal props on a raised stage sharpened the central focus.
Rarely will you find a more integrated team for Così than this one, eliciting a spontaneous camaraderie that informed every action and reaction, but equally triumphed in the opera’s memorable ensemble numbers. But here was individuality too, each character richly coloured with his or her own demeanour and personality.
Margo Arsane (Dorabella) and Charlie Drummond (Fiordiligi) played the sisters like two sides of the same coin, Arsane’s juicy flippancy and vocal delicacy an affectionate contrast to the glowing maturity of Drummond’s wholesomely versatile soprano. The tender, passionate tenor of Shengzhi Ren (Ferrando) proved the perfect foil to Arthur Bruce’s fast-acting Guglielmo, his rich lyrical baritone finding natural resonance in the church acoustics.
The playmakers – Michael Mofidian as the tricksy Don Alfonso (the game show host in Haines’ production) and the characterful Catriona Hewitson as the colluding Despina – were an artful pairing.
If there was an inevitable sense of distance from the orchestra and chorus, Stratford’s punchy direction captured the lively spirit of the piece, but also accommodated its many poised and beautiful moments.
For those in the audience for whom this was a longed-for return to live opera in front of an audience in a theatre, to cavil at all is absurd, but the truth is that Sir David McVicar’s new production of Verdi’s last opera sat much more comfortably in a car-park. The director’s own designs took full advantage of the environment at Scottish Opera’s technical centre in Glasgow’s Edington Street, and will doubtless do so again when the show reaches the semi-outdoor space of US co-producer Santa Fe Opera.
From the absence of the ribald sleaze in the arrival of Sir John’s busy bed onstage at the opera’s opening to the closing pageant of costumes and puppetry in Windsor Park, making still-magical stage pictures but lacking the spooky edge of happening in the real outdoors, this was a contained version of the show that opened a month ago. Rather than rebuilding a Shakespearean theatre, the set is an image of one within a proscenium arch.
That said, there are obvious advantages to being back in the opera house. This production has become a sort-of-tribute to the late Graham Vick, who died from complications of Covid-19 after it opened. The company’s controversial director of productions in the 1980s, he commissioned both Amanda Holden’s English libretto and Jonathan Dove’s reduced orchestration when he founded Birmingham Touring Opera in 1987. Both are displayed (surtitles included) to much better advantage this time around, with the orchestra behind the singers and set on the Festival Theatre’s huge stage (although still, I think, amplified). The balance between voices and instruments is more or less perfect throughout, and the detail of Verdi’s music, which was already very well played, even more clearly audible. The same goes for the clarity of the text, and Holden’s superb choral cry of “Apotheosis!” ranks with Kid Creole’s Coconuts singing “Onomatopoeia” in the canon of Great Backing Vocals of the 1980s.
That chorus is now located in the wings, and where the canal-side trees were revealed behind the set in Edington Street, the orchestra is now revealed to the audience in the last act. The singing of the cast remains as fine as ever, and it is a particular joy to hear Roland Wood’s full-voiced characterful baritone without a microphone in the title role. His is a very considered and rounded portrayal of Falstaff, even in the broadest slapstick-comedy moments. When he sings of the “harvest of my late summer” it is impossible not to apply that to the work’s composer as well, and Scottish Opera does that achievement proud in this staging.
Another corps of string players from the Orchestra of Scottish Opera joined leader Anthony Moffat for the last of the outdoor lunchtime concerts on the set of the current production of Falstaff, offering a programme of early music with one short nod to the band’s operatic repertoire.
That anomaly, Puccini’s Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) sat less uncomfortably among the Purcell, Vivaldi and Bach than you might think. Stylistically from another era, and with very different melancholic chords, the ensemble sound was not so far from the slow movements of two of the Italian composer’s Four Seasons: Spring and Summer.
And ensemble sound was what it was all about. This was no virtuoso excursion for Tony Moffat, and if your favourite recording of the Vivaldi warhorse is the one by Nigel Kennedy, you may well have been left disappointed.
This Spring was a very understated one, and none the worse for that. It was very precise and measured and not at all splashy. And although the Presto finale of Summer was not short of pace, it was kept on a pretty tight rein. Those who come to the same venue on Sunday or Monday for the Scottish Ensemble playing the full year of Seasons may expect to hear something less placid.
The dynamics and tempo perhaps took their cue from the opening work, Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of Henry Purcell’s Chaconne in G Minor. Britten wrote this work in his mid-30s, revising it 15 years later, and there is something of the schoolmaster and the Young Person’s Guide in the way the ground bass drops out to expose the upper strings and then returns with a bit of a bang.
All of which meant that the final piece, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, made the most impact in the hour, as the addition of solo flute, oboe and trumpet alongside Moffat at the front of the stage perhaps always made likely. With Kirstie Logan on oboe and guest flautist Taylor McLennan, the man to watch was the orchestra’s new first trumpet Paul Bosworth. He made light work of the stratospheric, nimble-fingered part, particularly in the opening of the last movement.
Although there had been a couple of lapses in intonation earlier, the ensemble strings made a rich sound here, and the propulsive continuo from Derek Clark at the keyboard with Martin Storey and Marie Connell on cellos and Peter Fry’s bass added a bit of welcome oomph. Keith Bruce
There can be no great mystery why Verdi’s last opera has proved so popular in recent years, with productions at New York Met, by Laurent Pelly in France, and most recently with Bryn Terfel singing the title role at Grange Park. What can it be in a work about an over-weight amoral acquisitive sexist boor who gets his come-uppance that resonates so clearly in our times?
Thankfully Sir David McVicar’s new production, destined for Santa Fe Opera via an Edinburgh International Festival run, is not just caricature, and carries a conviction that even if the ensemble sings that life is farce, it has its serious side too.
From a rambunctious start with Roland Wood being rolled to the front of a stage in a bed he is sharing with an improbable number of others alongside his Doll-for-the-night, this is a boisterous, busy show where it pays to keep an eye on all corners of McVicar’s elegant tiered timber set. But all that choreography (by Andrew George) goes alongside some fine characterisation. From his first scene address to Bardolph and Pistol (Jamie MacDougall and Alastair Miles) about ‘honour’, there is a dark malevolence to Wood’s Sir John Falstaff that means he is never a mere figure of fun. That aria also marks the first pinnacle in what is a towering vocal performance, very possibly the baritone’s finest in a career that has already made him a Scottish Opera favourite.
There are a few of those in this cast, including Sioned Gwen Davies from Flight and Nixon in China, who is Meg Page, and Elizabeth Llewellyn, Mimi in the fine Boheme that played this same car park in rather less lavish style last September.
Technically, this Covid-era production at the Scottish Opera Production Centre is a big step up. It is obvious in the staging and audible in the sound, with the orchestra and conductor Stuart Stratford under cover in the building next door but every detail of the orchestration audible through the PA, and perfectly mixed with the voices, solo, ensemble, and chorus, arranged by gender on either side of the stage. Occasionally some words of Amanda Holden’s witty English translation of the libretto may be lost on the wind, but for the most part everyone is clearly audible in a cast of singers without a single weak link, and some other quite exceptional performances, including Gemma Summerfield as Nannetta.
Verdi’s sympathies with the women of Windsor, as opposed to the devious, pompous and sometimes hapless men, are never in doubt. McVicar adds his own sumptuous gloss to that in their costuming: the plot may have the men constantly dressing up to disguise or seduce, but the director gives his female cast members more changes of frock than Beyoncé.
Even that cannot rival the theatricality, all scrupulously in period, that he then unleashes for the final scene at Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park. Verdi’s score famously culminates in a fiendish fugue for all the principals, lined up across the stage, and this staging precedes that with a glorious spectacle of puppetry and costumes that makes Bardolph’s ultimate duping of Caius and Ford in the cause of young love all the more believable.
Music director of Scottish Opera Stuart Stratford brought the affable and informative presentation style familiar from the company’s orchestral concerts at the Theatre Royal to what he called “the most exciting car park in Glasgow” on Tuesday lunchtime.
The winds and brass of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera moved to the front of the temporary stage built for the company’s production of Falstaff for the second of the musicians’ showcase concerts as part of the company’s Live at No.40 season. The third is on July 16, after a run of performances of Verdi’s Falstaff and a Citizens Theatre production of The Comedy of Errors.
Whatever stylistic playfulness directors Sir David McVicar and Dominic Hill bring to those, the composers featured in this recital had their own to display. Although from different eras and with different instrumentation, they all used form and styles to inventively explore and entertain.
The most familiar work, Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds, was led by the beautifully-rounded tone of Amy Turner’s oboe. What was especially notable, however, was the crucial role in the orchestration played by the two string players, Peter Fry’s double bass and especially Martin Storey’s cello. It was not until the second movement Minuetto that the horns settled into the groove, but the overall ensemble sound by the counterpoint of the Finale was very rich indeed.
As is the combination of instruments in Stravinsky’s 1923 Octet, with the composer’s use of muted brass and exploitation on the clarinet’s lower chalumeau register crucial to the colours. As conductor Stratford introduced it, there are indeed “classical” references in the modernist composer’s writing, but there are also suggestions of minimalism to come in the repetitions of some phrases, in what is a tricky and fascinating piece.
Enrique Crespo’s Suite Americana No.1 also has considerable difficulties for the players of the brass quintet, and its exploration of five dance forms would also be a challenge to actually dance to. The shifting rhythms of the bossa nova, oompah waltz, and soundtracky samba are all great fun though. This evocation of South America almost brought the sun out.
How wonderful it is to see orchestral musicians back on stage, and just as welcoming to be part of the live audience watching them perform with Sir David McVicar’s imposing set for the company’s current production of Verdi’s Falstaff as an adorning backdrop.
This was the first in a series of lunchtime concerts by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, part of the company’s Live at 40 series. And even with the weather somewhat soggy, and the auditorium a wall-less marquee in the grounds of Scottish Opera’s production centre, it was a happy atmosphere.
If the programme, divided equally between separate string and wind ensembles, reminded us of anything, it was that winds have always been a better outdoor bet than strings. The former also benefitted from a conductor – the company’s Emerging Artist Repetiteur Toby Hession – while the strings took the conductor-less route with associate leader Katie Hull directing from the front violin desk.
As an opener, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings was a great idea, a work full of seasoned passion but with a willowy leisureliness perfect for this time of day. It may just have been that the semi-outdoor acoustic allowed the fruitiness of the ensemble to dissolve into the wider ether, but much of this performance seemed distant and self-contained. Where the central Larghetto had a summer evening stillness about it, the sun was missing. It was all a bit featureless.
More intriguing was Hull’s own arrangement for string orchestra of Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls, which effectively amplifies the original string quartet version into something much rounder and richer. Even then, the opening two idylls cried out for more exaggerated expression, vindication of which came in the final Allegro con moto, invigorated by a cello springboard opening that instantly incited greater alertness, character and swagger from the players.
After a full and lengthy stage switch, the winds opened with Gounod’s Petite Symphonie, something of a trifle in symphonic terms, but enjoyable for its operatic leanings and, beyond a stern opening Adagio, its joie de vivre. Hession’s unfussy direction harnessed a confident rhythmic assuredness from the outset. The gorgeous flute solo (Eilidh Gillespie) in the Andante cantabile was quintessential arioso, the Scherzo a sprightly captivating gallop. This performance connected well with the unconventional space.
For the most part, so did Richard Strauss’ E flat Serenade. Early signs of the composer’s penchant for ripe horn melodies were wonderfully evident, and Hession never got in the way of the music’s natural flow, from the chorale-like solidity of the opening, through its modest surges and on to its restful conclusion.
There are more of these concerts to come. They are a great idea and invaluable for instrumentalist who have suffered considerable concert deprivation over the past year. There’s inevitable city noise all around, but somehow it adds to the occasion.