When Scottish Opera first announced its 2022/23 60th anniversary season, the plan was for Sir David McVicar to stage all three short operas of Puccini’s Il trittico on the one set with an ensemble cast. At some point along the line that bold notion fell by the wayside, and only one singer – soprano Francesca Chiejina, making a memorable company debut – appears in all three pieces (as does actor Keith MacPherson in small silent roles, including the lively corpse of Buoso Donati in Gianni Schicchi).
The set designs, by Charles Edwards, who is also working with Scottish Opera for the first time, are grand and bespoke for each story, to the impressive extent of a moving barge docking at the quayside at the start of Il tabarro (The Cloak), and the splendidly angular tapering perspective of the cluttered room where Donati dies and Schicchi tricks his family out of the juiciest cuts of his estate.
In between sits the problem piece of the trio, Suor Angelica, the convent-set story of an unmarried mother, a child given up for adoption, another family legacy and the mortal sin of suicide. As mezzo Karen Cargill – terrific in the piece as Angelica’s domineering aunt, “The Princess” – promised in her interview with VoxCarnyx, McVicar manages to redeem Sister Angelica with an inspired staging of the work. Alongside Cargill there are characterful cameos from Chiejina and Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Lea Shaw, and Edwards and McVicar have created what is one of the best uses of a staircase in music theatre since The Sound of Music.
The other crucial ingredient is the performance of Korean soprano Sunyoung Seo in the title role. Another company debut, she is a real find, with a glorious voice across her range, quite thrilling at the top and full of emotional heft, combined with a magnetic stage presence and acting skill. The ending of Suor Angelica has been condemned as sentimental nonsense, but she, and the young lad playing the ghost of her dead child, made it genuinely moving in McVicar’s staging.
She is just as effective as Giorgetta in the soap opera love triangle of Il tabarro, for all its cliches of melodrama. Her complex characterisation matches that of Roland Woods as her barge-skipper husband Michele, and her voice is well paired with that of Russian tenor Viktor Antipenko as Luigi (yet another company debut).
There are no weak links in the vocal casting in those first two operas at all, and that high standard of musicianship on stage is paralleled in the pit across the whole evening, where conductor Stuart Stratford steers a huge orchestra, including some exotic instrumental colours, through a terrific account of a score that is Puccini at the very pinnacle of his powers.
Where Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica are immaculately paced by McVicar and Stratford, Gianni Schicchi comes roaring out of the blocks like a whippet on speed – a riot of colour in set, costumes and sound, and delighting in its hectic ‘70s sitcom aesthetic. That frantic activity builds to Lauretta’s showstopping aria O mio babbino caro (the best-known music in the whole four hours and Francesca Chiejina’s big moment) and then runs out of steam. Woods is fine as Schicchi, but not as funny as some of the Donati family clowning around him, and marooned upstage for too much of the time.
It is an odd lapse by McVicar, who is a master of naturalistic theatrical narrative in opera, but the broad comedy of the most often seen part of this trilogy fails to communicate as confidently as the tragedy of the two earlier tales.
As she prepares for Scottish Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Il trittico, mezzo Karen Cargill talks to Keith Bruce
Sir David McVicar’s new production of Puccini’s problematic late-career triple-bill Il trittico will, Scottish Opera has said, address the difficulties inherent in staging its three contrasting stories in a single evening with adaptable staging and an ensemble cast.
The success or otherwise of the approach will become clear at the Theatre Royal on Saturday, but the presence in the company of Scotland’s star mezzo-soprano, Karen Cargill, already signals a departure from the plan.
Cargill will be seen only in the central – and most problematic – of the three pieces, singing La Principessa in Suor Angelica, the thoroughly nasty regal aunt of the titular heroine. While the first story, Il tabarro (The Cloak), is a dramatic dark tale of love and murder on a barge, and the last, Gianni Schicchi, a fun comedy that is often seen as a stand-alone, the sentimental convent-set all-female Sister Angelica is about unmarried pregnancy, suicide and redemption.
It is possible to draw interesting parallels with the composer’s own life from the original story by librettist Giovacchino Forzano (who also wrote Schicchi), but the fact that the venerable Kobbe Opera Guide devotes just a single paragraph to Suor Angelica while finding two pages of things to say about the other two parts of Il trittico speaks of the way the middle tale is often regarded.
Unsurprisingly, Cargill thinks that McVicar’s version will sort any problems. Her own casting certainly bodes well, as it builds on her acclaimed performance as Mere Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues de Carmelites at the New York Met. In fact she will return to that role in a new production by Barry Kosky this summer, the first time Glyndebourne has tackled the work.
“The Principessa is an extraordinary character because she is so hard, which is a treat to play, because I don’t get to play many characters like that.
“She is a little like Mere Marie in Carmelites, who is someone who has a strong belief system – the Word of God is everything and it dictates how she reacts and communicates. Mere Marie is often seen as a real baddy, but I don’t think she is in the way the Principessa in Suor Angelica is.”
The scene between The Princess and her niece is the dramatic heart of the tale. Arriving to have Angelica renounce her claim on the family fortune, she brutally tells her that the baby she gave up is dead. Patricia Bardon tried to soften the delivery of the crucial line in a touring Opera North staging a few years ago, but that will not be the way Cargill delivers it for McVicar.
“It is a test not to show compassion, because Sunyoung Seo, who is playing Angelica, is so gorgeous and so immersed in the whole thing. The aria I have is angular but dramatic, so it has that romantic Puccini language but with a hardness there.
“I’ve seen so many of David McVicar’s shows over the years, and I always thought that it was the type of story-telling that I want to do. That’s the beauty of this job, that you get to play complex characters who are not one-dimensional.”
As for the contention that Suor Angelica is the sentimental weak link in Il trittico, Cargill is having none of it.
“This production is emotionally direct and truthful. The thing with David’s work is that all the characters are recognisably human. It’s emotional but not sentimental – it’s direct.
“I don’t know why it is less admired because I think it is an extraordinary piece. I think people will fall in love with it, because of how it is done.”
The production is part of a busy year for the mezzo, who recently seemed to be taking a step back from her performing schedule when she accepted a post as Interim Head of Vocal Studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
“There’s been quite a bit of travel recently, just when you’d got used to being at home, for the first time in 20 years.
“Once this closes I go to Brazil for Bluebeard’s Castle with Sir Richard Armstrong and the Sao Paulo State Symphony. I am going a few days early rather than just turn up and sing, so I’m in Brazil for ten days.
“Then there’s an SCO tour of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’ete [St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow], before a teaching residency and a concert at Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst. I drive to Glyndebourne the day after that and start on the Monday.
“I couldn’t give the Head of Vocal Studies job the full energy that I wanted to give it, and sing at the same time. I would have had to have stopped singing, and that’s my addiction. But I still want to work with young singers and share real information.
“So I’m no longer head of department but still an Associate Artist, so this year I work with third and fourth year undergraduates. It’s about eight visits across the year, and I am taking two sopranos, a mezzo, two tenors and a baritone to Drumlanrig Castle at the end of next month, at the end of which they perform at the Tryst.
“I encourage students to listen as widely as they can but also not to become locked in to what someone else does. That emotional freedom and curiosity about how to perform a piece is important. Music is about joy and communication and you must not lose the ability to play around with that.”
Recently signed to the big international agency Askonas Holt, Cargill happily lists works (the Trojans by Berlioz and any number of Verdi roles) and theatres (La Scala, Milan and Sydney Opera House) that she hopes lie in her future.
“If it happens, great, but if it doesn’t that’s OK. You have to be realistic. I’ve never had a set path of things I want to accomplish. I’d love to sing Carmen but I don’t think it will ever come my way.”
Puccini’s hard, bad Princess is what obsesses her at the moment, and she is excited about revisiting the Poulenc, a work she first sang as a student in Glasgow.
“It is the most extraordinary music. There is a constant sense of unease, you never get to relax in Carmelites. The Kosky production could be radical and I’m up for that – we should all be challenged every day.”
Scottish Opera’s Il trittico opens at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on Saturday March 11 for three performances, followed by two at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. Full details scottishopera.org.uk
Although it is, for some obscure reason, lousy at labelling them – the non-mainstage strands of its activity are often lumbered with the most prosaic of titles – Scottish Opera has long been highly adventurous in the different ways it goes about selling the artform to the widest public. Those who moan about the reduced number of fully-realised productions it can afford to mount rarely give the company proper credit for that.
If it is “opera in a car park” you want, and apparently the Arts Council of England is particularly keen on that, Scottish Opera blazed a trail during the pandemic. It was also ahead of the game with filmed work, and its work with young people, the mentoring of emerging singers, and outreach into the wider community, has decades of productive history – making last year’s astonishing Candide not the one-off wonder it seemed to some.
Since the arrival of Stuart Stratford as Music Director, there has also been the addition of regular concert performances of rare gems – particularly lost works by Puccini and Mascagni – that are also important in showcasing the strengths of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, restoring its profile after the musicians were given part-time contracts as a cost-saving measure.
The Verdi Collection is the latest development of that strand, four dates in the current season following a one-off Puccini gala in Dundee’s Caird Hall in December 2021. It would not be unkind to say that the format currently falls between stools as it tries to both please seasoned opera-goers and entice new audiences.
As Stratford introduced it, the programme was an exploration of the mature work of Giuseppe Verdi, from La traviata to Otello, although not in that order, as well as being a celebration of “the beating heart of the company”, its orchestra. In that latter aim, it was a magnificent success. There is a warmth to the string sound of the opera orchestra that is all its own, and there were some high quality solo turns from guest first cello Thomas Rann, clarinettist Kate McDermott and the always-distinctive oboe of Amy Turner. Only once – although regrettably at the climax of Violetta’s aria in Act 2, scene 1 of La traviata – was the onstage orchestra too loud for the singing to be heard properly, and Stratford’s balance of his ensemble was generally impeccable.
That extract, however, highlighted both the strengths and the weaknesses of the concert. The opera’s titular “fallen woman” was sung by Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura in one of many company debuts among the soloists. If this was in preparation for her featuring in Scottish Opera’s future plans we shall be fortunate indeed. In partnership with tenor Peter Auty and, especially baritone Lester Lynch in that piece, as Amelia in an aria from the end of Un ballo in maschera, Leonora in La forza del destino, and, supported by Edinburgh mezzo Katherine Aitken’s Emilia, as Desdemona in Otello, Nakamura revealed a dramatic assurance paired with a superbly articulate and versatile voice.
South Korean bass Jihoon Kim will also be welcome back anytime. He stepped in here to replace Brindley Sherratt, having been part of the entirely different cohort of singers in November’s performances of The Verdi Collection in Aberdeen and Inverness. He has an enormous vocal instrument for his compact frame, and although less mobile than either Nakamura or Auty, used it very expressively.
It is plain that the aim of these “Collections” is to go beyond the gala concert of showpiece arias without their context, and impart a sense of the drama and storytelling of the artform by presenting longer extracts, but that does mean the conductor and his team are trying to cover a lot of bases. Perhaps there was more of a sense of the whole of La traviata than of any other work in the programme, but it did take up a lot of the evening. And the whole concert may have been a value-for-money ticket, but it clearly exceeded the attention-span of some in the audience, who elected to slip away.
Lots of good stuff, then, but sometimes it is true that less is more.
The shortlists for this year’s Royal Philharmonic Society Awards includes a diverse trio of nominees from Scotland, alongside many others who are regular visitors or sometime residents.
Aberdeen’s sound festival is nominated in the Series and Events category for its 2021 festival, which explored the climate emergency through specially commissioned works and environmentally themed performances. Performers and audience members were encouraged to travel to the festival using sustainable modes of transport and the programme included a ground-breaking multi-media chamber work by composer Laura Bowler which saw soprano Juliet Fraser performing in Aberdeen with the Talea Ensemble streamed live from New York.
Director Fiona Robertson said of the nomination: “It recognises the contribution that the arts sector can make, both practically and artistically, to the climate emergency. It shows that it is possible to bring some of the world’s leading performers and composers to a festival in the UK, without an enormous carbon footprint.”
In the Opera and Music Theatre category Scottish Opera is up against ENO’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Garsington’s Orfeo and Theatre of Sound and Opera Ventures’ Bluebeard’s Castle, and unusually not linked to a single production. The citation reads: “Scottish Opera are on a roll. From their hilarious, magical take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream to their community-driven Candide, all their ventures this year have embodied their signature spirit and talent for magnetising audiences from near and far.”
Given the task of unveiling the shortlists on BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast show, Edinburgh’s Kate Molleson modestly omitted the Storytelling category, presumably as the writer and broadcaster herself is nominated for her acclaimed book exploring 20th century composition beyond the mainstream, Sound Within Sound. She is competing with James Runcie’s Bach novel The Great Passion and Manchester Camerata’s short film Untold: Keith.
The awards have been described as the classical music BAFTAs, but VoxCarnyx prefers to think of the BAFTAs as the RPS Awards for film and television!
This is absolute fresh territory for Scottish Opera. Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar: the Fountain of Tears may claim itself an opera, and by literal definition it is, but that is perhaps to diminish the uniqueness with which it eschews idiomatic purity, embracing most notably the hypnotic charisma of Spanish flamenco dancing, the laid-back sensuality of Latin American rumba, the feral intensity of authentic flamenco singing, and an all-pervading theatrical earthiness that could easily bag Ainadamar legitimacy on the Broadway stage.
I doubt if anyone witnessing the opening night of its UK stage premiere in Glasgow, the first directorial venture into opera by Brazilian-born choreographer Deborah Colker, cared a jot. For this is, purely and simply, genuine entertainment, heavy going in its emotional reminiscences on the life and untimely execution during the 1930s’ Spanish civil war of poet and playwright Federico Garciá Lorca (expressed through the lens of those who adored him), but realised here – the Argentine composer himself was present in the audience – with such ardent physical fluidity, unceasing visual stimulation and musical intoxication as to signal the ecstasy and optimism central to Lorca’s legacy.
Colker is a dynamic presence, amusingly witnessed in her animated opening night curtain call appearance. She also, understandably, places the importance of movement foremost on her agenda, materialising here in an uninterrupted hour-plus piece that flows with bewitching organic unity. A cast of disparate parts – key characters, a genuine flamenco singer (Alfredo Tejada as the Falangist officer Ruiz Alonso), flamenco dancers and supporting ensemble – come together under her influence as one swaying mass, like underwater reeds dancing to the rhythm of the tide.
That, in itself, serves to gel the musical extremes at play in Golijov’s untamed score. What begins as a primeval-sounding orchestral prelude and mournful ballad, courses variously through hi-octane foot-stomping flamenco, rapt verismo-style eulogies, a steamily-enacted Cuban excursion (Margarita tried to lure Lorca to safety there), and those spine-tingling interjections by Tejada of genuine Andalusian cante. Under music director Stuart Stratford, a virile Scottish Opera Orchestra, spiced with dazzling onstage Spanish guitar (Ian Watt) and traditional cajón (percussionist Stuart Semple), are the chief energisers in this riveting presentation.
Colker’s creative team are wholly on message. Jon Bausor’s ever-morphing stage design simple and effective, soaked in the emotive darkness of Paul Keogan’s shadowy lighting, and enlivened by well-integrated video and sound production from Tal Rosner and Cameron Crosby respectively.
It’s a credit to this cast that the key characters achieve a powerful balance between prominence and coalescence. As Margarita Xirgu – Lorca’s actress of choice, close friend and key protagonist in this theatrical lament – Lauren Fagan counters reverential passion with glowing sincerity. As Lorca, a role scored unexpectedly but effectively for female voice, mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey argues convincingly a warm and affectionate slant on the volatile poet. Julieth Lozano’s innocent portrayal of Nuria, the student of Margarita destined to carry on Lorca’s legacy, is a potent symbol of truth and hope.
There’s no denying that Ainadamar, first performed in 2003 in Massachusetts and revised for a Santa Fe production in 2005, has minor questionable traits: the last ten minutes or so, for instance, that seem to unnecessarily prolong the final denouement. But this is a grand achievement for Scottish Opera in its 60th anniversary season, a reminder of the bold principles that governed its founding in 1962.
Further performances in Glasgow (26 Oct & 5 Nov); and at Edinburgh Festival Theatre (8, 10 & 12 Nov)
Ainadamar is produced by Scottish Opera in collaboration with Opera Ventures and co-producers Detroit Opera, The Metropolitan Opera and Welsh National Opera
Polymath David Henry Hwang is the librettist of Osvaldo Golijov’s hit contemporary opera Ainadamar, having its UK staged premiere from Scottish Opera. He talks to KEITH BRUCE.
There are few artists in any field anywhere in the world with quite the diverse, and conspicuously successful, CV of David Henry Hwang. As a creator of original works of his own he is primarily a playwright, but his global fame rests as much on his role as a librettist in the world of opera and musicals.
Scottish audiences were introduced to him in 1989, when his first collaboration with composer Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, visited Glasgow’s Mayfest in the run up to the city’s profile-changing year as European City of Culture. Fresh from its premier performances in a Vienna aircraft hangar and a Berlin ice-rink, it received mixed reviews, but impressed enough folk to have a local revival by Paragon Ensemble at the Tron Theatre in 2003.
That same year Hwang was working with Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov on a commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood summer residency. Created in just a few months, Ainadamar explored the life and work of Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, as remembered by his muse, Catalan performer Margarita Zirgu.
It was only after considerable reworking, and the input of director Peter Sellars for a Sante Fe Opera production two years later, that Ainadamar found its finished form and became a success.
“One of the differences between the Boston production and the Santa Fe production was learning more about Lorca’s life,” Hwang remembers now. He also credits the composer with being adaptable in a way that he recognised from the world of theatre but encounters less often in opera.
“On Broadway there may be six weeks of previews during which you can make changes, but that is not the opera composer’s way of working. Osvaldo was very comfortable making changes – we are both very flexible people and made an unusual team.”
The score the Argentinian created was, the librettist contends, years ahead of its time.
“We did get on well, but that doesn’t always mean that a composer’s music speaks to me the way Osvaldo’s does. He was breaking boundaries and doing things that hadn’t been done before.
“Osvaldo integrates other voices seamlessly, drawing from different musical styles and using electronic sounds. At that point it was not something that people were generally doing in opera.
“It’s beautiful and fun to listen to. The arias and the trio at the end are gorgeous and you can kinda dance to it! I still enjoy listening to Ainadamar.”
It is also true that the story chimed with a direction that Hwang’s own work had already embarked on in plays and would go on to explore more thoroughly. His background as an Asian American runs through early work F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat), his breakthrough play M Butterfly, which deconstructed Puccini and has had a new incarnation as an opera at Santa Fe this year, and more recent Broadway hits Yellow Face and Soft Power, which mined his own life and included characters called “DHH”.
“There is a parallel in that I have brought different cultural voices into my plays. With Osvaldo I got to play in this other sandbox, with Spanish and Moorish influences and duende and Roma voices, and it was a great world to be in.
“When we first met, we started by kicking around different subjects because we had to create the thing really quickly. One of the things that attracted me, when Osvaldo pitched the Lorca story, was that Lorca to some extent predicted his own demise. As artists you sometimes reach into yourself and pull something out and that thing ends up manifesting itself in your life.
“Writers generally write autobiographical characters, they just don’t often name them after themselves. Ultimately you have to do the thing that you are interested in and believe in and let the chips fall where they may. In general I have had more success with things that are personal and idiosyncratic.”
Hwang is speaking particularly of his own work, and he draws a careful distinction between that and his work with composers.
“I work in a lot of genres, and in each there is someone who is the primary artistic voice driving the project forward and the other artists are supporting that vision.
“If I write a play, I am the primary artist, but in opera it is the composer because the work will rise and fall on how the music is perceived and evaluated. That isn’t to say that the libretto isn’t important, because it affects the perception of the music, but fundamentally it is about the music.
“I am also very economical with words, and that is the discipline for the librettist. There have been a couple of times when I have adapted my plays into operas and you have to lose about 50 to 60 per cents of the words in a play to make an opera.”
The new opera of M Butterfly has music by Huang Ruo, but David Henry Hwang’s most regular composing partner has continued to be Glass, including the New York Metropolitan Opera commission The Voyage, The Sound of a Voice, based on two of Hwang’s plays, and most recently Circus Days and Nights, using the poems of Robert Lax, for Malmo Opera.
“Philip is very easy to work with,” says Hwang. “We come up with an idea together, and I’ll write a story outline – although in the case of The Voyage at the Met the outline was Philip’s – and then he assumes that the librettist’s job is to write the words and his is to write the music.”
An impressive list of other composers clearly find Hwang an agreeable collaborator too. They range from Unsuk Chin (2007’s Alice in Wonderland) and Howard Shore (2008’s The Fly, based on the film by David Cronenberg, who made a movie of M Butterfly) to Elton John, Phil Collins and Prince – Hwang co-wrote the least salacious song on the late funk musician’s 1994 album, Come.
He still proudly lists that last surprise on his comprehensive and varied CV.
“I’m pretty eclectic and I don’t really make a distinction between high culture and writing a Disney musical,” he says. “The primary distinction is always whether I am in charge or am I helping someone else realise their vision.
“When I was a kid, the two pop stars that meant the most to me were Prince and David Bowie, so the fact that I got to write a song with Prince and it ended up on an album is just the coolest thing!”
Ainadamar has three performances at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal from Saturday October 29 and three at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from November 8. Full details at scottishopera.org.uk
It would be a challenging assignment to compile a programme for one of Scottish Opera’s regular four-singers-and-a-piano tours that did not favour the women with the more dramatic music. Such is the nature of the artform in repertoire ancient and modern.
Soprano Zoe Drummond, one the company’s current cohort of Emerging Artists, certainly had the best of it here, with solos from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden and Gounod’s Mireille in the first half of the programme. Mezzo Shakira Tsindos had her share of the spotlight too, but her voice seemed less suited to Handel and Gluck than it was to Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia later on, although her Bertarido blended well with Drummond’s Rodelinda in their duet.
The two men in the line-up, baritone Christopher Nairne – like Tsindos making his Scottish Opera debut – and tenor Osian Wyn Bowen, another Emerging Artist, did have the crowd-pleaser before the interval, however, in their duet from Les pecheurs de perles.
The established formula of these programmes was intact here, Scottish Opera’s Head of Music Derek Clark mixing rarities with favourites and a brand new work (Told by an Idiot by Toby Hession) opening a second half which then tended towards lighter music nearer the end. Director Emma Jenkins, who also contributed the text to Hession’s composition, resisted any linking storyline, working instead with scenic devices by designer Janis Hart.
These were diverse, and variously successful. If a theme of “love” linked the music – offering plenty of scope – 1970s (rather than 60s) costuming was not an immediately obvious choice. The subject matter of each scene was captioned on a blackboard and easel stage left, as in the music hall variety shows – and television’s The Good Old Days – but the titling was in the style of episodes of the rather more recent TV hit, Friends.
That blackboard device was continued in Hart’s modular staging, which the cast was required to decorate with chalk drawings, with varying degrees of accomplishment. Occasionally effective, it was more often distracting from the performance in front.
The period elements did gel for Hession’s “Scene for four voices and piano”, which was a clever bite-sized encapsulation of some of the ingredients of Macbeth in the style of a television drama. Nairne was Mac, Drummond his wife Beth, Wyn Bowen his boss Duncan arriving for dinner, and Tsindos the witch Hecate, whom only Mac can see. As clever musically as it was conceptually, it was one of the most successful of these commissions, and fitted better into the programme than many of its predecessors.
It was also one of the few occasions on which all four of the cast appeared together, which was a shame. Elsewhere they combined well in duos and trios and each had successful solo moments, even if Tsindos was hampered in her dramatic roles by being dressed rather like a children’s TV presenter.
Pianist and musical director Kristina Yorgova – also an Emerging Artist – favoured the music hall side of the staging in her costume of silver dress and bowler and she won Linlithgow’s most enthusiastic ovation for her expert accompaniment, and occasional conducting, of the vastly varied programme.
A new opera festival launches this weekend in Dundee. KEN WALTON reveals the plot
Is there really room for another classical music festival in Scotland? The people of Dundee certainly think so. From Thursday to Sunday this weekend (22-25 Sept) the first ever Opera Festival Scotland gets underway in the feisty Tayside city with performances of Verdi’s Aida and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a visit by Scottish Opera’s Highlights Tour, and a supporting programme of lectures, masterclasses and singing competitions.
Nobody is keener for it to work than locally-born events guru and festival organiser Michael Jamieson, whose brainchild it is, and who has fought against the odds to make this inaugural event happen. “It’s not been without its challenges,” he freely admits. “Firstly we had to be taken seriously, decide on exactly what would happen, then Covid came and we had to move the Festival back a year.”
Even now, he and his organising colleagues have had to deal with the hiatus around national mourning for the late Queen, and the general nervousness of the paying public at a time of economic hardship. “The cost of living crisis is probably our biggest immediate challenge. People are not confident in parting with their money right now,” he says. Nonetheless, optimism is not in short supply.
That’s as much to do with the inclusive nature of a programme designed to involve local opera enthusiasts as it is with the organisers’ prudence and realism in engaging affordable artists, focusing limited funds on where they will make the most impact, and in establishing creative collaborations with key professional bodies. “Those collaborations came remarkably easily,” says Jamieson, who has secured support from Scottish Opera, English National Opera, Perth Festival and the RSNO.
The centrepiece, Friday’s concert performance of Aida at the Caird Hall, is all about involvement. Yes, the Festival has imported experienced singers to fill the key roles, but to make this the extravaganza Jamieson wants it to be, the hordes of soldiers, priests, prisoners and slaves will be eager and enthusiastic Dundonians.
“We wanted to involve as many amateur singers as possible from local communities,” Jamieson explains. “Dundee and the surrounding areas are full of small groups who want to do big operas but just don’t have the resources. Different events are forever competing with each other, so we though, let’s do it differently, do something big where they can all join in on neutral ground.” Friday’s performance will be directed by local music teacher and conductor Ralph Jamieson. “Yes, we’re related,” admits Michael.
As for the fully-professional performance activity, Scottish Opera has chosen to open its latest country-wide Opera Highlights Tour in the city’s Marryat Hall. The same venue hosts Opera Bohemia in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro on Saturday.
Another highlight has to be the presence of internationally-renowned, Glasgow-born soprano Janis Kelly, once a regular star with Scottish Opera, now chair of vocal performance at the Royal College of Music.
A number of the Opera Festival Scotland events revolve around her presence. On Sunday morning she conducts a masterclass at Dundee High School, sharing her musical knowledge and experience to two upcoming sopranos, Scots-born Rosha Fitzhowle and London-based Jila Mariko.
Kelly will also chair the judging panel that afternoon in another key Festival event at the Caird Hall, the Young Artists Singing Competition. She’ll be joined by fellow judges Julia Lagahuzere (founder and general director of Opera for Peace), veteran mezzo-soprano Linda Ormiston, and the heads of casting for Scottish Opera and ENO. “We had over 100 applications from around the UK,” says Jamieson. The winner, chosen from four finalists who will perform with the RSNO, will receive the Opera Festival Scotland Trophy, £1500 career grant, a lunchtime recital promoted by ENO, and a masterclass with Bollywood playback singer Kamal Khan, courtesy of Opera for Peace.
Other Festival events include a Non-professional Singing Competition, and two keynote lectures: one on the History of Opera Performance in Scotland by Fife-based Iain Fraser, co-creator of the website Opera Scotland; and Julia Lagahuzere, focusing on the artist as a world ambassador and their place in society. One further event at Dundee’s V&A, presented by experts Megan Baker and Raymond Uphill-Wood, offers a workshop on Costume and Make-Up Design. The Festival has also been active in local schools in the run up to the inaugural event, introducing opera to children at both primary and secondary level. Pupils have also been offered free admission to Festival events.
Jamieson’s future ambition for Opera Festival Scotland is that it should operate on a two-year cycle. “That depends on what happens this weekend,” he says guardedly. “If it’s something Dundee wants we’ll do everything we can to make it a regular fixture in the Scottish cultural calendar. The first indication it is will be the audience figures and feedback from this event. We’ll see how it goes.”
There will, inevitably, be those who think otherwise, but the decision to press ahead with Scottish Opera’s Lammermuir Festival performance of lost Massenet opera Therese an hour after the news was announced of the death of the Queen was the correct one. The audience stood for a minute’s silence and listened to a (rather good) playing of the National Anthem by the orchestra before the show, but it was the work itself that turned out to prompt thoughtfulness about the monarch’s legacy.
Of course, as Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is alleged to have said of the French Revolution: “It is too soon to tell”. Massenet and his librettist Jules Claretie, biographer of Moliere and director of the Theatre Francais, were making a similar point in the first decade of the 20th century about the events of the last decade of the 18th in France.
If “Marianne” is the female symbol of the revolution, Therese is a more realistic depiction of French womanhood, caught between loyalty to her Girondist partner Andre Thorel, offspring of a lower-middle-class working man, and memories of her previous lover, Royalist nobleman Armand de Clerval.
Those three are the story, and Scottish Opera’s recent deft form in casting is continued here with Lithuanian mezzo Justine Gringyte ideally suited to the demanding range of the vocal line of the titular heroine, baritone Dingle Yandell looking as well as sounding the part as Andre (were he to consider slumming it in Les Mis, he’d be Jean Valjean), and former Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Shengzhi Ren having a welcome opportunity to show off his powerful but relaxed tenor voice.
Credit should go to the work of the language coach on the production, Florence Daguerre de Hureaux, for what is very fine diction of the text by all three – outstanding in Yandell’s case – as well as from everyone on stage, including the smaller roles and compact men’s chorus.
There are also surtitles, and that clarity (as the well-named librettist would surely concur) is important, because the background debate of ideas is as crucial as the love triangle onstage.
Yandell’s early aria, and duet with Gringyte, declares that “we must love to live” – condemning revolutionary hate, despite his loyalty to the cause – while Gringyte’s Act 2 opener of longing for the open meadows of rural France is a recognition of the values of the ancien regime in the face of the Terror outside the Paris apartment in which she – and, secretly, Ren’s Armand – are holed up.
Idealists in their own way, Massenet and Claritie are arguing, during La Belle Epoque, for pragmatism instead of extremism – an accommodation of the strengths of France’s Royalist past within the egalitarianism of the Third Republic.
The composer – a tunesmith and orchestrator of proven skill, whose work we hear too little of and whose vast catalogue is scarcely covered in most opera guides – provides a sumptuous score to this debate. That early baritone aria comes with lovely pealing winds and the most captivating orchestral scoring accompanies the romantic memories of both male characters in Act 1.
The music does the work again in the move to Paris from the chateau near Versailles at the opening of Act 2, but staff director Roxana Haines contributes with eloquent simplicity in the staging, replacing the often-sung-about stone bench in the chateau garden with a covetable chaise (courte, rather than longue). The costuming is similarly stylish and pithily expressive, Gringytye elegant in black, blue and mauve, the chorus of revolutionaries in caps, Andre sporting the inevitable neckerchief, and Armand, amusingly, an aristocratic Barbour coat.
The sightlines may not be ideal in St Mary’s but the acoustic is wonderful, and guest conductor Alexandra Cravero, who is immersed in this repertoire and had the orchestra playing superbly, produced a balance that was ideal, every detail of the music emerging with clarity and the singers always perfectly audible.
Repeated at Perth Concert Hall tomorrow, Saturday September 10, at 7.30pm
Where do you want opera to take you? Lisbon, Paris, Buenos Aires, Suriname and Venice? Check. On a philosophical journey, along the catwalk and to fleshpots and sex dungeons? Check. Into war zones, across viciously-patrolled borders and on an inflatable boat to a new life as a refugee? Check. From one of the most familiar overtures in 20th century music through less well-known terrain that is filled with echoes of the scores to stories old and new that you already know? Check.
Scottish Opera’s new production, programmed with admirable cheek at the peak of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, has an extravagant address of its own: Live at No 40, New Rotterdam Wharf, on the canal side of the company’s technical centre in Edington, beyond where it staged La boheme and Falstaff during lockdown. What the company has purpose built in a vast rigid tent, filled with platforms, containers, curtain-sided trailer and trucks that become the stages, is an event – and one that everyone who loves opera, musical theatre or spectacle should rush to see. It is also an ideal introduction to any of those to the uninitiated.
The company has a significant history with Leonard Bernstein’s long-in-development adaptation of Voltaire. At the end of the 1980s, then music director John Mauceri undertook a major revision of the work by his mentor, and Lenny himself became involved in the latter stages of a revival that resulted in the “Scottish Opera version”, which is, of course, the basis of the new production.
I’d wager, however, that neither Mauceri nor Bernstein could have envisaged what director Jack Furness, conductor Stuart Stratford and their respective teams have created for this 21st century staging. Utterly true to both Voltaire and Bernstein – and using the long list of wordsmiths who have contributed to it, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim and John Wells among them – this is a Candide that is a bold satirical swipe at the ills of the world today: social media, pornography, perilous journeys by refugees, sleazy politicians and aggressive miliary invasions among them.
It is also a story of love winning out against the odds, and a vehicle for some of the most hilarious slapstick broad humour and slick verbal wit, while containing sumptuous music that may well find you choking back tears at times.
The number of performers involved in creating this rich spectacular is huge. Prominent on the central raised platform are Stratford and the orchestra, playing at their best, and largely confined to their station, although one clarinet does go walkabout. Everything else is constantly in motion; when Candide’s journey reaches Venice Carnival the gaming tables are all around us and the action and singing projected from all points of the compass in quite dizzying style.
But then, it all began in that way, with the chorus suddenly revealed as being amongst the paying public promenading in the arena. That ensemble is also revealed as being a multi-ethnic, many-aged collective with professional singers among them. They move brilliantly together, with many individual step-out moments, and sing with passion and precision; this choir sounds brilliant.
The principals would have to be on their mettle to match them, and this cast certainly is. Levels of experience range for Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Lea Shaw to company stalwarts Susan Bullock and Jamie MacDougall, with Ronald Samm (Dr Pangloss) previously featuring in ScotOp’s Pagliacci in Paisley, the recent production this most closely resembles.
The three young singers at the heart of the tale, Dan Shelvey as Maximilian, Paula Sides as Cunegonde, and William Morgan in the title role are all quite superb performers in spectacular voice, up for everything that Furness throws at them in his brilliant re-imagining of the work.
But that goes for everyone performing, and – on the evidence of the first night – for the audience as well.
Further performances August 13, 14,16, 18 and 20.
Picture (l to r) William Morgan (Candide), Paula Sides (Cunegonde), Lea Shaw (Paquette), and Dan Shelvey (Maximillian). Credit James Glossop.
Under the current regime, Scottish Opera likes to name things literally – “Opera Highlights”, “Live at No 40” – and there could be no more apposite name for the current cohort of what used to be called “Connect” than “Scottish Opera Young Company”. The new work that is having just four public performances in the rehearsal space at the top of the HQ building at Glasgow’s Charing Cross is both essentially a tale for and by young people and a superb ensemble performance. However unlikely it may be that all 21 of these talented youngsters go on to professional musical careers, they will always have this achievement to boast of.
Composer Gareth Williams and librettist Johnny McKnight have given them a bold piece to get their collective teeth into. The Rubble of the title is the ruin of a 1980s care home, Findenterran Farm, where young people were taken for their own safety, only to be subject to abuse. Told both by the characters at the time and their older selves looking back from the present day, the parallels with recent criminal proceedings and public inquiries do not need explanation. In his trademark style, McKnight nonetheless manages to bring broad humour and just enough leavening sentimentality to the subject matter. Director Roxana Haines’ insistence that neither the central abused child nor the perpetrator of the abuse is ever portrayed by an individual onstage is key to both the drama of the staging and that crucial ensemble feel to the production.
That Williams and McKnight have experience of working in partnership is obvious in the music. There are echoes of Philip Glass – particularly in the finger-counting of piano lessons early in the piece – and of Stephen Sondheim in some of the phrasing of lyrics, and when the music lands on a melodious phrase, the composer makes sure it lodges in the consciousness. Scored for single strings, percussion, accordion and piano, under the baton of Chris Gray, there are some lovely touches in the instrumentation, but the focus is always on the chorus, save just two longer arias. Soprano Shuna Scott Sendal, the sole professional singer, has a perfectly-timed double-edged moment as the staff member taking refuge in drink, and Haydn Cullen takes his opportunity to deliver the score’s pivotal revelatory song with stylish confidence. As new arrival Jude, who pairs up with the home’s Queen Bee Charlie (Imogen Bews), he sets in motion the chain of events that leads to decisive action by Sendal’s Mrs Pearson.
In the contained space, audience on two sides and musicians on a third, the fluent choreography of the ensemble is as impressive as the singing. As was quickly pointed out in a Q&A session after the first performance, it is regrettable that such a powerful piece of work will be seen by relatively few people. Although a through-composed operatic work, much of the sound-world is as close to music-theatre and it would not be at all fanciful to see the production enjoying a successful Edinburgh Fringe run. The award-winning work there by much-missed Tramway-based Junction 25 youth theatre company was often brought to mind, and that is high praise.
Composer Gareth Williams talks to KEITH BRUCE about his new work for Scottish Opera’s Young Company
There will come a time when new work in the arts does not carry some legacy of the pandemic, but it has not arrived just yet.
For composer Gareth Williams, who – as he puts it himself – “emerged from lockdown with a baby”, it was a time of personal as well as professional challenges. If fatherhood has dictated that he still doesn’t get out as much, the lengthy gestation period of the latest of his stage works for Scottish Opera meant that it has gone through a number of versions on the way to the performances in the company’s Elmbank Crescent HQ at the end of this month.
Rubble is the third collaboration between Williams and librettist Johnny McKnight for Scottish Opera, following The Last One Out in 2012 and Hand for an Opera Highlights tour. The initial proposal to Director of Outreach and Education Jane Davidson came from Williams, drawing on a celebrated Graham Greene story from the middle of the last century, The Destructors.
“I said I wanted to write something with young people and in The Destructors they are fishy characters that don’t conform to society’s rules, and I really liked that about them. I wanted an edge about them, and some bite, and I wanted to work with Johnny. So we handed it over to him and after it had been through his mind the Graham Greene is long gone, and what has emerged is something very dark and menacing as well, but more contemporary.
“We had a libretto reading in February 2020 and I remember it very clearly as on the way home I crashed my car because I was so pre-occupied. It is a really troublesome, challenging story. Johnny is someone who throws the gauntlet down to you and you have to take it somewhere else.”
What McKnight came back with was a scenario of young people who have been let down by the care system picking through the fragments of their lives in the rubble of an abandoned children’s home. Parallels with some harrowing recent court cases and public inquiries may well be self-evident in a black comedy that Scottish Opera is describing as challenging. The performance of the cast of 17-23 year olds is not recommended for those under 14.
Although the creative team was in place, with staff director Roxana Haines and young company artistic director Chris Gray conducting, events conspired to put obstacles on the road to Rubble’s production.
“Rubble is kind of haunted by Covid,” says Williams. “I had to stay away from wind and brass instruments, so it is written for piano, two percussionists, accordion and single strings. But part of my want from the very start was to write for a chorus, about 30 strong, singing together for as much of the opera as possible. That felt quite affirmative with the young people.
“The initial idea was that there would be lots of opportunities for workshops, and because of the pandemic that didn’t happen. So we have all had to live with this opera a lot longer.
“We didn’t know when it was going to happen, so it became a process of eternal tinkering. At one point it might have been an outdoor show so I started to arrange it in that direction, and then it came back to being indoor so that changed it again.”
There were positives about the extra time gifted to the team, however.
“It was the most open casting call. Before we made a final decision on voice types we allowed the young people to go for any of the main characters, so it is very non-gendered. That left it for me to do a bit of sculpting at the end, but it was a good call.
“And because I didn’t have access to the chorus, I wrote as a singer-songwriter at the piano and sang some of the arias and made demos and sent them to the director and conductor. So they already know this piece inside out, because of that extra year.”
Williams had plenty of experience in that singer-songwriter role because of the other project that has occupied a lot of his time recently: Songs From The Last Page.
Working with Chamber Music Scotland, Williams has created an ever-growing suite of new songs that draw their texts from the last pages of books, most of them Scottish and running from classics like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island through to contemporary writers like Ali Smith and Andrew Greig. Arranged for himself at the keyboard with cello and violin, Williams has brought onboard guest singers to supplement his own vocals. Following a show by the trio at Glasgow’s Aye Write literary festival, the next two performances will include Deirdre Graham, at her home in Skye, and Lori Watson, in Portobello.
“We have a run of gigs in the autumn,” says Williams, “including Wigtown, Aberdeen and Blairgowrie, and then we are back in Glasgow, at Partick Bowling Club, in December.”
The set list has its staples, but Williams is constantly adding to the catalogue.
“Somebody asked me to do an Alexander McCall Smith one, so I did that – I am just kind of responding and keeping loose with it. It has become this weird hobby. I just can’t stop doing them and there is an inexhaustible supply of ideas – there are plenty of good last lines!”
Songs From The Last Page has remained mostly based on adult books, despite the composer’s best efforts following the birth of his son.
“There have been a couple of books I was told I couldn’t have; the publisher just said no. I wasn’t allowed the last line of The Gruffalo or Winnie the Pooh – anything with a big corporate image attached was a no-no.
“But many living authors have been really generous, and it is good to have things like Treasure Island in there too – things that are out of copyright. I am going to record some of them this autumn and see if it might make an album, in the hope that we might persuade international book festivals to book us next year.”
Also grabbing a slice of his time are the Grammy Awards, after Williams was proposed as a voting member of The Recording Academy by fellow composer Craig Armstrong, and duly appointed. “The first round of deliberations starts this month and I am really keen to try and become more involved and learn how it works.”
He has other projects in the pipeline, but the final weeks of rehearsal of Rubble – about the full plot of which Williams is very tight-lipped – and the still-new experience of being a father are top of the agenda.
“Parenthood takes up a lot of your blue-sky thinking time, it turns out – I am a slave to this little sleepless god. And writing that piece about vulnerable young people and becoming a dad at the same time weighed on me in a very interesting way.”
Rubble has four performances in Scottish Opera’s Elmbank Crescent home, at 2pm and 7pm on July 30 and 31. For future performances of Songs From The Last Page, see chambermusicscotland.com
Rehearsal pictures of Gareth Williams and Johnny McKnight and the Scottish Opera Young Company by Sally Jubb
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