Tag Archives: Theatre Royal

Scottish Opera: L’elisir d’amore

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

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.

Available to view at www.scottishopera.org.uk
Ken Walton

In partnership with Perth Festival of the Arts

Scottish Opera: Hansel and Gretel

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

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.

Keith Bruce

Image: Kitty Whatley (Hansel) and Nadine Benjamin (The Witch) in Hansel and Gretel. Scottish Opera 2020. Credit James Glossop.

Scottish Opera / Così fan tutte

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

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

Available to view on www.scottishopera.org.uk

Online Cosi from Scottish Opera

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.