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.
Scottish Opera is showcasing its orchestra in a series of lunchtime concerts alongside its new production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Music director Stuart Stratford speaks to Keith Bruce.
Destined for indoor performances at the Festival Theatre as part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, Sir David McVicar’s new production of Falstaff is also giving Scottish Opera the focus for its own summer festival at its rehearsal space in Glasgow’s Edington Street. The Citizens Theatre, Scottish Ensemble and Scottish Opera Young Company are also part of a programme that runs to August 1 and sees the revival of concerts by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, the first two of which are between the first two performances of the opera on July 5 and 6, with the third to follow on July 16.
Effectively these have become sectional showcases, offering all the players in the orchestra a chance to hone and display their skills. Falstaff will feature the biggest orchestra the company has been able to field since the start of the pandemic, while the concerts are three programmes of large-scale chamber music.
Music director Stuart Stratford explains: “It is all happening on the stage with the Falstaff set still there.
“We had to keep the numbers of the orchestra down, so the maximum number of players we can have is 15 with social distancing. That was one of the factors in deciding the programme, and we wanted to use as many players in the orchestra as possible over the three concerts. I think we utilised every player in one concert or another except for harp, timpani and percussion.
“It is all about getting us playing again and showing the depth of talent across the orchestra, not just the principal players. So the strings are split into two groups, one led by our assistant leader Katie Hull in the first concert, playing Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and the Three Idylls by Frank Bridge and then leader Tony Moffat leads the other half of the strings in the concert that he is curating with Bach’s Brandenburg 2, Vivaldi, Purcell and Puccini. It is all about a celebration of the orchestra and the repertoire stemmed from that – pieces that showed off our assets.”
The third concert is a showcase for the winds and brass of the orchestra, with music by Dvorak, Stravinsky, and Enrique Crespo.
“I asked for suggestions from everyone. Many of the players suggested the Petite Symphonie by Gounod. Several people suggested the Dvorak Serenade for Winds. I was really keen to do the Stravinsky Octet as it is one of the few chamber pieces that has a bass trombone in it.
“I was delighted that Katie chose to include the Frank Bridge Three Idylls, which is beautiful and not that well known, and makes a nice pairing with the Elgar String Serenade. The Crespo I didn’t know at all. It is a brass quintet that really fitted the brief and it’s a real firework piece to end the brass and wind concert.”
The profile that the orchestra has enjoyed within the company over the recent difficult times looks from the outside to have been in marked contrast to the relationship Scottish Opera had with its musicians in recent years, when the company ceased to have a full-time chorus and put the players on part-time concerts.
That is an impression confirmed from the inside.
A long-term member of the orchestra told VoxCarnyx: “This last year and a half we’ve felt really connected and part of the company for the first time in about a decade. They’ve worked very hard to include us in their future plans. We know we are an integral part of the opera company but it hasn’t always felt like that. We have felt fully supported by Scottish Opera throughout this whole this period. Our artistic value may not have been fully appreciate in the past, but we have done lots of meaningful work during the pandemic.
“These concerts have been thought about very carefully, how to make it work for the size and the space and the players that they have. It’s such a good way to keep everyone’s playing in good form.”
Stratford is clearly proud of the work that the company has done in difficult times, from the film of Menotti’s The Telephone for last year’s Edinburgh Festival through online staged versions of Mozart, Janacek, Humperdinck, and most recently Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore.
“We have tried to keep people going. It is so important not just for their fingers and lips but for people’s mental health as well. We have been able to keep people busy in a meaningful way.”
The Orchestra of Scottish Opera performs as part of the Live at No.40 season on July 5, 6, and 16 at 1pm. Full details and booking information at scottishopera.org.uk
Main Image: Principal oboe Amy Turner with The Orchestra of Scottish Opera. Credit Beth Chalmers.
As opera plots go, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is ostensibly unremarkable. The beautiful Adina is in love with the awkward Nemorino. We know from the outset they’re going to end up living happily ever after, but not before a quack doctor (Dulcamara) and military chancer (Belcore) delay the ultimate rapprochement with their risible delay tactics.
Thankfully there’s Donizetti’s music to make the two-hour journey worthwhile, an almost uninterrupted torrent of great tunes that give substance to the make-believe, tolerance to the silliness, and a reason why this opera remains so enjoyable nearly 200 years after it premiered in 1832.
L’elisir has played a memorable part in Scottish Opera’s history – a 1984 production famously using a 1930s’ Fiat 500 nicknamed Topolino as the vehicle of choice for Dulcamara’s triumphant entrance – and is back with the company once again, in partnership with Perth Festival, this time in a filmed stage production cognisant of Covid times, and directed by Roxana Haines who has been a creative beacon for the company during the past year.
Except that this production doesn’t quite set the heather alight. It’s handicapped for a start by the necessary confinement of the chorus to darkened seats in the audience stalls. Their presence should provide the visible buzz and spectacle in this Donizetti. It’s sorely missed.
That leaves us with the skeleton human interplay between the 5-strong solo cast and a permanent set of piecemeal trellis, scattered seating and fortepiano, the latter fulfilling a dual purpose of recitative accompaniment and stage prop, facilitated by the mute actor/pianist presence of Erika Gundesen.
Dynamic interaction is hampered by the need to keep distanced. Portrayals turn either to awkwardness or caricature.
So it’s back to the singing, and here we have something to shout about. All credit to a cast of mainly Scottish Opera Emerging Artists, one Royal Scottish Conservatoire student and the well-seasoned Roland Wood.
From his opening aria, Chinese tenor Shengzhi Ren (ironic to have a Chinese singer cast as an Italian in the wake of Scottish Opera’s chastisement for casting westerners as Chinese in their production Nixon in China which they subsequently pulled last week from the South Bank Sky Arts Awards) finds fire and soul in the music of Nemorino, fearless in the topmost range, warm and emotive, with only a hint of fatigue midway that disappears as quickly as it arrives.
Catriona Hewitson cuts a formidable foil, just as intense in her vocal performance, from the tenderest sighs to the headiest effusions, often with a hint of mischievous. Arthur Bruce captures the stereotypical pomposity of Belcore, adding a vocal performance that is richly expressive and characterful. RCS student Elena Garrido Madrona looks and sings permanently perky as the frenetic Gianetta.
If stage experience shows, it’s in Roland Wood’s charismatic portrayal of Dulcamara. Compelling at every level, resonant and versatile of voice, his is a characterisation you can’t fail to believe in. He lights up this production.
There is fine playing, too, from Scottish Opera Orchestra, under the baton of music director Stuart Stratford and positioned rear stage behind the main action, a result of which is a glowing representation of Donizetti’s score, indeed moments where unexpected gems of orchestration are revealed to surprising beauty and effect.
Indeed, it’s the music that carries this production; it’s not a complete theatrical triumph. Could it be that we’ve just reached saturation point where online streaming is concerned? I suspect Scottish Opera’s next production, Verdi’s Falstaff to live audiences, will help us answer that.
The enigmatic title Scottish Opera has given to a month-long summer festival in the car-park of its rehearsal facility, Live at No. 40, masks an adventurous programme of music and theatre in the centre of Glasgow.
40 Edington Street is the address of its canal-side production studios on the north side of the M8 and the car park was the venue for last summer’s inventive production of La boheme for a socially-distanced audience.
Its successor this year is Verdi’s Falstaff, directed by Sir David McVicar and opening on July 3 for six performances.
The company has now revealed that the outdoor venue will be open until August 1, culminating in two performances by Scottish Opera Young Company of Kurt Weill’s The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken. The stage there will also host Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre and a new production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, directed by Dominic Hill and running from July 11 to July 24 for a total of 11 shows, including two matinees.
Completing the line-up are three concerts by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, under the baton of Stuart Stratford, playing Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and brass and wind music by Crespo, Dvorak and Stravinsky, and four “picnic” concerts of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by the Scottish Ensemble, partnered with charity Social Bite, on July 18 and 19.
Full details and booking information available on the Scottish Opera website.
SCOTTISH OPERA: Live from South Lanarkshire Rutherglen Town Hall
On 14 March last year, Rutherglen Town Hall hosted Opera Highlights, the annual tour by Scottish Opera in which a small concert party of singers and pianist present a structured selection of operatic numbers to community audiences around smaller Scottish venues. It was to prove Rutherglen’s last public event before lockdown. Thus their delight in hosting a filmed “night at the opera”, Live in South Lanarkshire, now available to view on Scottish Opera’s website.
It features two of the company’s Emerging Artist singers, soprano Catriona Hewitson and mezzo-soprano Margo Arsane, with head of music Derek Clark at the piano. The programme is more compact than usual, extending only from Mozart to Puccini, and the ensemble is halved in size from the familiar quartet. But where it loses in scope, variety and that all-essential platform intimacy, it gains from the charming personal introductions by the artists to each and every song.
Both singers carry that charisma into their individual performances: Hewitson’s ringing contributions moulded with shapely conviction in Mozart, Puccini (the ever-popular “O mia babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi) and Reynaldo Hahn; Arsane’s mezzo voice producing a broodier, deeper tessitura contrast in numbers from Bizet’s Carmen, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and more Mozart.
When they get together – in duets by Offenbach, Delibes (the famous Flower duet) and Humperdinck’s “Brother, come and dance with me” as a gleeful finale – the synergy is delightful, and Clark’s empathetic pianism always a reliable mainstay. While it’s not the all-embracing Opera Highlights we’re used to, it’s enough to keep our mouths watering for the eventual return to the real live experience. Ken Walton
Scottish Opera has announced a summer programme of Covid-friendly opera that includes: a new outdoor production by Sir David McVicar of Verdi’s Falstaff; a Pop-up Opera Tour amounting to over 200 Scotland-wide performances, a new On Screen production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore; and a one-off film of Operatic Highlights encouraging local communities to support live opera once the lifting of pandemic restrictions permit.
“We plan to be back in theatres presenting live opera as soon as restrictions allow,” says Scottish Opera general manager Alex Reedijk. “I am delighted that we are preparing to bring live music back to audiences following almost a year without live opera.”
Scots-born McVicar, whose career has included hit productions for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and who last directed Scottish Opera in its 2017 production of Debussy’s Pelléas and Melisande, applies his creative energy to one of Verdi’s most popular comic Shakespeare operas. This co-production with Santa Fe Opera will be staged – as was last year’s outdoor La boheme – in the company’s Edington Street car park. Exact dates are yet to be confirmed, and a further announcement of additional Edinburgh dates is anticipated over the coming weeks.
Sung in English, the cast includes Roland Wood, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Louise Winter and Jamie MacDougall. Scottish Opera music director Stuart Stratford conducts.
The summer months (provisionally June to September, dependent on the Scottish Government’s timeline on lifting restrictions) also see a repeat of last year’s Pop-up Opera Tour to outside locations around Scotland, this time with a show that fuses together five Gilbert and Sullivan favourites: The Gondoliers, The Mikado, the Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and Iolanthe.
During the final stages of the tour around September, Scottish Opera will also revive its children’s entertainment A Little Bit of Bubble McBea, aimed at lower primary school years, and containing an environmental message that coincides conveniently with the run up to Glasgow’s hosting of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26.
One of the company’s best initiatives over the past year has been its enforced foray into filmed opera, with staff director Roxana Haines at its forefront. After her December success with Cosi fan tutte, she now turns her directorial talents to Donizetti’s playful opera buffa, L’elisir d’amore, which she sets in another “socially distanced” time, the Jane Austen era.
Scottish Opera emerging artists Catriona Hewistson, Shengzhi Ten and Arthur Bruce star alongside guest principals Roland Wood and Elena Garrido Madrona and an 18-strong chorus in this collaboration with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Filming takes place on 22 May with a release date of 18 June. A special edition of BBC Radio Scotland’s Classics Unwrapped, presented by Jamie MacDougall on 13 June, will feature audio excerpts.
Prior to that, on 23 April, Scottish Opera releases Live in South Lanarkshire, a programme of operatic favourites recorded in Rutherglen Town Hall, designed to fulfil the role of the annual Opera Highlights tour that normally takes place in small venues around Scotland. This filmed version will be released via the Scottish Opera website. Full information at www.scottishopera.org.uk
The range of filmed performance, from fully-realised cinematography, through outdoor spectacle, to “as live” theatre shows, that Scottish Opera has managed to produce under the restrictions of the pandemic is mightily impressive. Within that breadth of work, the company has also managed to create a very specific Covid-era aesthetic in its home venue, with a socially-distanced, masked orchestra performing on the stage, and a performance area for the singers built out over the pit.
It works well, with the grandeur of Theatre Royal safely accommodating the style of the mid-scale productions the company has toured to Scotland’s smaller theatres. That sort of show was the origin of the reduced orchestration that Derek Clark had previously made of Humperdinck’s dark family fable, and which has been retrieved from the library for this compact version of an opera that was scheduled for a full production before fate intervened.
The first thing to say is that the music hardly suffers at all. Clark’s arrangement makes the most of the score and conductor David Parry and the orchestra perform it superbly, with some lovely solo turns, particularly principal cello Martin Storey. The singing is top class too, with company debuts for Phillip Rhodes, who brings vocal power and real charm to The Father, and Nadine Benjamin as both The Mother and The Witch, and Kitty Whately and Rhian Lois tackling the title roles for the first time.
They combine beautifully, playing somewhat against the gender stereotyping maintained in David Pountney’s slightly laboured English translation of the libretto. Director Daisy Evans has some fun with the restrictions of social distancing, the children allowed to stretch yearningly for each other but never touch, and measuring their steps on the diamond tessellation of the floor-cloth. Her principals match every reference with vivacious performances. From their lining up of soft toys along the footlights as an “audience” in the empty auditorium, this is a show where small gesture means a lot.
Lois has the pick of the tunes of course, or at least the top line in all the familiar ones, and she also brings some of the sassiness of her Musetta in Scottish Opera’s summer outdoor La boheme to counter the cloying moments. Female role-models also get a work-over in Benjamin’s doubling, with her somewhat dowdy pregnant Mother, all threats and curses, contrasting with a very glam, corseted Witch, full of promises and enticements.
Evans consistently translates the limitations on her staging into strengths, although the Christmas Grotto elements, even if seen as post-Twelfth Night cleaning and clearing up, look a little dated mid-February. Charlie Drummond is clad in Mrs Mopp head-square-and-rollers as The Sandman and The Dew Fairy, and the liberated gingerbread children are an Anime quartet of young women in onesies. With two shopping trolleys serving as all the necessary set and props in the children’s temptation, incarceration and victory over the witch, the third act becomes a madcap cross between Tiswas and Supermarket Sweep.
Available to watch free via the Scottish Opera website, on its Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Image: Kitty Whatley (Hansel) and Nadine Benjamin (The Witch) in Hansel and Gretel. Scottish Opera 2020. Credit James Glossop.
How best to avoid the pitfalls of Mozart’s Così fan tutte? It’s an opera that can appear absurdly glib at face value – two women tricked by their betrothed into an unlikely switch of allegiance when the latter fake their absence and reappear as tempters in disguise, all just to teach the girls a lesson. Farce by any other name.
Or there’s the concept approach, not least those attempts by many 19th century productions to corrupt the storyline and neuter the misogyny by making the girls secretly aware of the ruse, stringing their fellas along just to teach them a lesson.
Either way, and somewhere in between, the trick is to be guided by Mozart’s music. Look no further than the wistful charm of the Act 1 trio, “Soave sia il vento”, one of opera’s most transformative, humanising moments. Miscalculate moments like that and the magic is gone.
It’s to director Roxana Haines’ credit that her new staging of Così for Scottish Opera, film directed by Jonathan Haswell, avoids usurping the music’s charm. Her modernising concept is to depict these unlikely shenanigans as the filming of a reality TV game show. Don Alfonso is the conceited host whose concerns for the “contestants’” wellbeing are way secondary to his precious screen image.
A minimally adorned Theatre Royal stage is the perfect setting, multiple shooting angles facilitating the juxtaposition between general action and to-camera moments. If there’s an inkling that this could so easily lead to over-trivialisation, the concept’s one weakness – its ultimate insignificance – perversely becomes its strength. You can take it or leave it.
So it’s left to the cast to inject the all-consuming lifeblood, and this young sextet – mostly current or former Scottish Opera Emerging Artists – set about their task with invigorating elan. The two toyed-with couples are as well-matched in ensemble as they are distinctive in character.
Shengzhi Ren’s searingly passionate Ferrando, tiring momentarily but quickly recovering in Act 2, finds willing partnership in baritone Arthur Bruce’s more laddish, vocally composed Guglielmo. Where Margo Arsane’s Dorabella is deliciously sweet and flighty, Charlie Drummond brings composed femininity to her glowing portrayal of Fiordiligi.
As chief manipulator, Michael Mofidian’s Don Alfonso is colourful and frenetic. Together with Catriona Hewitson’s bubbling versatility as Despina, they are the most obvious manifestations of the game show idea. The chorus, spread around the circle balcony for obvious Covid reasons, offers hints of an audience presence, but various visual cameos arising from that are a little too contrived to work convincingly.
No lack of conviction from Stuart Stratford and his Scottish Opera Orchestra, caged in at the rear of the stage – similarities, perhaps, to the penned band in that other TV favourite, Strictly – and offering a spirited Mozart performance that encompasses the extremes of frivolity, passion and tenderness implicit in this all-embracing score. Ken Walton
Scottish Opera continues to set the pace with filmed productions online, announcing a new Cosi fan tutte, built around its current posse of Emerging Artists, available to view online from December 13.
Filmed on the stage of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow with music director Stuart Stratford conducting the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and chorus, Roxana Haines’ new production references reality TV. Soprano Catriona Hewitson, mezzo Margo Arsane, tenor Shengzhi Ren and baritone Arthur Bruce are joined by 2019/20 Emerging Artist Charlie Drummond and Royal Opera House Jette Parker Young Artist Michael Mofidian.
In the first month of the new year, the company follows that with a concert performance of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, also filmed at the Theatre Royal, directed by Daisy Evans, who was responsible for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival production of Menotti’s The Telephone.
Using David Pountney’s translation and a reduced orchestration by Derek Clark, David Parry conducts and the cast includes Kitty Whately as Hansel, Rhian Lois as Gretel, Nadine Benjamin as Gertrude and The Witch, Phillip Rhodes as Peter and Charlie Drummond as Sandman and Dew Fairy.
2021 is the 50th anniversary of Scottish Opera’s education and outreach department, in its various guises, and that will be marked by what the company intends as live performances by Scottish Opera Young Company next summer. Already meeting for rehearsals via Zoom, they are preparing for the world premiere of Rubble, composed by Gareth Williams with a libretto by Johnny McKnight. Soprano Shuna Scott Sendall will join the young singers for the show, which will be conducted by Chris Gray and directed by Roxana Haines.
Image: Shengzhi Ren, Arthur Bruce and Margo Arsane in Opera Highlights. Scottish Opera 2020. Credit Colin Hattersley.
With little or no access to live audiences COVID-19 has forced classical music into the digital age. And there’s no going back, says KEITH BRUCE
In the way of familiar journalistic overuse, the phrase “the new normal” was very swiftly denuded of any meaning, but it has been clear for a while, even to those most blinkered about the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, that long-term change is upon us.
For those who earn their livings in the arts there was an immediate huge short-term worry, with venues closed and performances cancelled because of the safety restrictions necessitated by the health emergency, and earnings abruptly curtailed.
At the same time, it was impossible not to be heartened by the outpouring of creativity that the situation precipitated. An online performance will never produce the same visceral thrill as the joy of hearing music played in a shared space, but the technology available at relatively little cost enabled talented musicians to produce work that could not be replicated in the recital room, multi-tracking themselves into large one-person groups or becoming a close-harmony ensemble without the help of even other family members.
Working in enforced isolation on opposite sides of the globe, new partnerships were forged as existing ones were maintained and expanded, digitally.
Scots and Scottish organisations have been inspiringly dynamic in much of this. As Nicola Benedetti told VoxCarnyx of her own education foundation: “We were always wanting to move things online, and it was almost as if we were gifted an opportunity to push forward with that.”
At the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, recently-arrived chief executive Alastair Mackie had been equally clear that the RSNO needed to embrace the possibilities of the digital future, before anyone had heard of COVID-19. Beginning with fun and games for young people and home-shot party-pieces by players, the RSNO plundered the cache of filmed recordings in its own recent archive to keep the orchestra’s output in the public eye.
Alongside the Benedetti Foundation’s video diet, the National Youth Choir of Scotland was also swiftly out of the blocks with a huge range of music tuition films for all ages and abilities, at the same time as it found ways of allowing its young choirs to meet online rather than cancel their school holiday sessions.
That education work became an early indicator of one of the other upsides of the enforced move to digital – its global reach. The Benedetti Foundation had not had ambitions outside of the UK, and the work of NYCOS, even with its network of area choirs across Scotland, stopped at the border. Now both found they were teaching, and receiving feedback from, young people around the world.
This, of course, raises funding questions as well as opportunities. Scottish Government money, business sponsorship and parental support sustains organisations like NYCOS for the particular benefit of the resident population – is it fair and desirable that parents from elsewhere are able to tap in to that resource?
These are the sort of questions that will have to be asked as the months of living like this stretch on, another acceleration of a process of digital adaptation that sits oddly with the sensation that life has slowed down.
With its current digital subscription season, the RSNO is in the forefront of testing the market. Salvaging some elements of the season it had already announced, as much in the commitment of star soloists as in repertoire, its series of ten concerts, pay per view at £10 each, with a pound-a-gig discount for booking the season, will be easy to do the maths with at the end of the run. Having its own new technology-ready venue to use, where the required space for playing under the current restrictions was available, has been crucial, as will be the loyalty of the orchestra’s live-music-starved fanbase.
Another thing we have learned from the pandemic is that jokes about silver-surfers and inter-generational adaptability to online platforms are so much patronising nonsense. “Usually our web audience skews much younger, but this time the older audience were equally engaged,” Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan told Vox Carnyx in a recent interview.
For the time being the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is still broadcasting its concerts free, with an appeal for donations, which is the model many other organisations have adopted. Scottish Opera, which has also been a pace-setting organisation, has also made its high-quality offerings available for nothing so far.
The opera company was way ahead of the game. By sheer good fortune, it had a brand-new opera film, The Narcissistic Fish, already shot, edited and scheduled to show when that became the only game in town. Swiftly following it with a superb version of Menotti’s The Telephone for the online Edinburgh Festival, it then brought the Lammermuir Festival to a close with a filmed production of Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, from the stage of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.
When it was briefly possible, the opera company also leapt into the breach with live offerings – three compact Pop-Up touring shows (also free) and a fine La boheme in the car-park of its technical centre, for which the paid-for tickets were probably under-priced, given the demand.
Although the Janacek was free to view – and is still available – Lammermuir was another important Scottish experiment in pay-to-view. Through its partnership with BBC Radio3 about half of its concerts, all from a church in Haddington with no audience, could be heard free, but watching the recitals online required the purchase of a £5 ticket, with a £33 season ticket available for all 12 of them.
A lot of supporters bought the passes, and the box office attracted around half the number of individual bookers the festival would expect, for fewer than half the number of concerts.
What astonished James Waters, who co-directs the festival with Hugh Macdonald, was the spread of the audience, from Switzerland, Bulgaria, Japan, Canada and the USA as well as across the UK. “How did they know about us?” he asks. “We had a vanishingly small marketing budget.”
Echoing Nicola Benedetti’s observation that recent experience has shown the long lead-times in classical scheduling to be non-essential, the Lammermuir online festival was given the go-ahead on August 3 and launched on August 20. Ticketing for the broadcasts proved straight-forward and communication with the online audience went more smoothly than Waters had expected.
The final sums have not been done, but the lessons of the digital experience are clear to him, even if it is possible to return to the previous model of live performance next year. “It would be unacceptable for us not to do something online next year. We’ve learned so much, and it might even pay for itself.”
It will surprise no-one who has experienced this increased digital life in Scotland that Waters reports some issues with establishing a solid, fast broadband connection for the concerts, which effectively dictated that the recitals were filmed and then broadcast “as live”.
That has become the usual model for the orchestras and smaller ensembles too, but there is a huge variation in the amount of lighting and post-production work that comes with digital broadcasting, and for some the nearer the experience remains to the raw live show the better. “If we’d had more time to think about it, we’d have had the chance to cock it up,” notes Waters sagely.
That distinction between “live” and “as live” also explains why the BBC SSO has not been shown to best advantage recently, with genuinely live broadcasting – at which it has so much experience – twice coming embarrassingly unstuck. And the BBC, as if it didn’t have enough problems at present, is the body that faces the biggest, and most pressing questions. Having had a virtual monopoly on live classical music and opera broadcasting in the UK for so long, it now has an obligation to share that playing field with a whole new league of competition.
When organisations need to gain revenue from their music through online broadcasting, can they continue to give the same product away free? Are streamed Wigmore Hall recitals, subsidised by the associated Radio3 broadcast, taking market share from ticketed chamber music? Should the BBC Scottish have delayed its season-opener, when it was clear it was going to hit the ether at the same time as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Quilter Cheviot-sponsored gala with Nicola Benedetti started their programme of concerts?Such questions, or ones very like them, will require answers in the months to come. Whenever the health emergency ends, and even though the return of shared experience in the same space cannot come too soon, there will be no going back to the musical diet as it was before.
Ah, the “C” word. Is there no escaping it? Surely opera, the most fantastical of all stage forms, could be the magic carpet whisking us to a much-needed alternative fiction; where Covid is perhaps a mythical Roman God rather than this pesky contemporary pestilence.
Or has Scottish Opera hit the right note by gluing together the pan-century musical potpourri that is its cheery annual Opera Highlights production with pandemic-strewn dialogue, in the same way traditional pantomime might throw in modish one-liners?
Billed as “a wry look at our socially-distanced times”, you do have to hand it to Scottish Opera. The company has been out in front over the summer with performances, both live and filmed, that say boo to the big “C”. This filmed version of the Highlights Tour, shot in Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre and unveiled on Scottish Opera’s website on Sunday, might not physically be heading for the 30-plus outlying communities it traditionally serves, but ironically and somewhat positively, it could conceivably reach every household in the nation and beyond.
So yes, for all that its weakest aspect is the aforementioned script, which to its credit is functionally minimalist, the stylistic array of arias and ensemble pieces it links, and the fresh aptitude of the buoyant quartet that deliver them – zestful young talent from Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artist scheme – are what score the real success of this hour-long production stage directed by Rosie Purdie, film directed by Antonia Bain.
From cultured Mozart to sentimental Lehar, Ponchielli to doleful Massenet, upbeat Verdi and soulful Korngold to double servings of Donizetti and Bizet, the playlist is like a box of Milk Tray without the dreaded marzipan sandwich. All infinitely palatable, sweetly sung, and portrayed with credible collegiate interaction despite the onstage adherence to individually squared-off confines.
Singly, there is much to savour from soprano Catriona Hewitson’s coquettish Moi, je m’appelle Ciboulette (Reynaldo Hahn) and the sultriness of Korngold’s Marietta’s Lied from Die tote Stadt; and from mezzo soprano Margo Arsane, whose velvety richness hits the spot in a tearful aria from Massenet’s Werther. Baritone Arthur Bruce slips with ease between the artful nonchalance of Mozart’s Guglielmo (Cosi fan tutte) and the quicksilver wit of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Roulette Song from their final collaboration, The Grand Duke. It’s left to tenor Shengzhi Ren to reach spine chilling heights in Donizetti and Lehar.
A mixed cocktail of ensemble pieces bring depth and variety to this piano accompanied show (the dextrous Susannah Wapshott), ending officially with Bizet’s famous Pearl Fishers duet, but in response to the telling handful of stage-managed applause, offering one more all-cast delight from the pen of Rossini, complete with – you guessed it – yet another social-distancing message. Ken Walton
When awards are made for the contributions to the beleaguered worlds of music and the arts during the health crisis, the name of baritone Andrew McTaggart should be one of the first on the list.
As a singer he was one of the first musicians back out on the road as part of the small team that took Scottish Opera’s Pop-Up versions of three very different shows to outdoor venues across the country when the weather still made such an exercise an optimistic possibility. And as a choir director he has kept the enthusiastic amateur voices of Ayr Choral Union exercised at a time when meeting together in a room has been impossible.
That project and purpose continues, but on Sunday the choir, four young soloists and a fine compact chamber ensemble came together online to perform Handel’s best-known oratorio in a manner that set its own template.
There are many ways to make a Messiah, from the small professional group giving a meticulous historically-informed performance through to Come & Sing versions for massed untrained voices. McTaggart conducted one that used the technology everyone is learning to embrace, YouTube and the Zoom platform, to combine elements of both in a communal experience.
His soloists – soprano Catriona Hewitson, contralto Penelope Cousland, tenor Ted Black and bass Colin Murray – had been leading sectional training online to supplement McTaggart’s own coaching of the choir in a time of social distancing, and for Sunday’s culminating performance they were also the onscreen, one-voice-to-a-part chorus, self-shot from where ever they happened to have been living at the time. The solo recitatives and arias, however, had been filmed in one session, in the same space as the socially-distanced twelve-piece ensemble, with McTaggart conducting.
The elements had been assembled for a full performance in which the sound quality was quite remarkable, and the pictures were more than just the icing on the cake because McTaggart was directing not only the people visible on screen, but also his 100 or more choristers singing along at home.
It was a compact version of the score, clocking in at well under two hours, but all the essential elements were there and the playing of the instrumentalists (with some well-known faces from Scottish music) and the performances of the young soloists were top class. Black and Cousland added some fine ornamentation, while Hewitson and Murray tended more towards playing with a pure-toned straight bat, while all four combined on Part Two’s sequence of choruses and then the Hallelujah in a way that suggested some very skilful sound engineering.
In some parts of Ayrshire it was perhaps possible to wander down the street and hear their voices leading members of the Choral Union who were joining in lustily in front of their own laptops and televisions. In the charitable tradition of the work, as the choir’s current President Kate Wilson pointed out, all donations supporting the performance are going to Help Musicians UK, which has plenty need to meet at the present time. McTaggart and Ayr Choral Union did Handel proud. Keith Bruce