Review – Don Pasquale – Scottish Opera

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This review also appears at Opera Britannia

Obviously intended be another populist crowd-pleaser, Scottish Opera’s new production of Don Pasquale is visually gorgeous but sabotaged from the pit by conducting from Francesco Corti that is bold, daring and utterly insensitive to the fact that anyone is singing.

Things began well. On entering the theatre, the curtain was dominated by a large projected image apparently advertising the production. The first few bars of music came at a cracking pace and then a pause slightly more pregnant than usual as the digital image was revealed to be the first page of a digital book. As the overture continued, an unseen hand then started to scroll through the pages which turned out to be the pages of an Italian photo-story featuring the characters we were about to be introduced to. They gave the back-story to the production which was, and one is aware in the telling of it that there is a lot to swallow here, that the old bachelor Don Pasquale loves cats but is sadly allergic to them. Upon this artifice, which is unsupported by the libretto, hung quite a lot of the production. We saw in the unfolding comic-book story that Don Pasquale was having tests from a doctor to determine what it was that was causing him to be ill and that it turned out to be cats. Cats had to be eliminated from his life and these were then replaced by lots of artificial cats. The digital book was done with some panache though it is difficult to affirm the decision to have the text of the speech bubbles in Italian with no translation.

When the overture was finally over and the narrative thus established, the curtain finally went up to reveal André Barbe’s brilliant set design. Again there was something of the comic book about the set which took us to Pensione Pasquale – a small lodging house in Rome, sometime on the cusp of the swinging sixties. Vibrant colours dominated the stage and a magnificent painted backdrop showed the local buildings towering over the Pensione.  Draped between the rooms that we could see and the sky above were yards of washing all out to dry in the sun on clothes lines.

And thus we found Don Pasquale consulting Dr Malatesta about his allergies and apparently being assured that there could be no cats for him. Around the old man himself were stuffed cats, china cats and plastic cats. Cats indeed, of every kind.  All of this cat business was really leading to the best joke of the show – a brilliant visual gag at the final curtain which it would be unkind for the reviewer to reveal to anyone who might see the show.  However, reflecting on it after seeing the show, one is struck by how odd this feline premise was. [Read more…]

The Sloans Project – Opera Review

Rating: ★★★★☆

This review also appears on Opera Britannia’s website.

The Sloans Project is an exciting new opera that has been around for a couple of years but is revived for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. This performance was one of two being given in its original setting – the Glasgow public house from which its stories derive. It now moves over to Edinburgh in a brave attempt to relocate a piece which has hitherto been regarded as absolutely site specific and tied to its origins. The Sloans Project is an innovative and gripping piece and deserves to succeed in any setting. All parts were played by a quartet of singers accompanied by half a dozen musicians.

We begin, of course, in the bar. Arriving in Sloans on a Wednesday afternoon, it was not immediately obvious that there was any performance scheduled at all. It was simply an old bar room filled with locals drinking. A young chap (in fact the composer, Gareth Williams) sat at the bar with a glass of water and a musical score in front of him, but that was the only clue that a performance was in the offing at all. Suddenly though, he dipped his finger in the water and started circling the glass, making it sing. As he did so, other previously unnoticed members of the company dotted around the bar began to do the same. In moments the whole bar seemed to be singing its own ringing, gathering chord. A woman then appeared through the door and began to sing. It was an electric beginning to a piece which was full of drama.

The Project is not a continuous narrative. Rather, it is a series of five scenes drawn from stories connected with the bar. Three characters re-occur from the first scene in the last, bringing some kind of conclusion to proceedings and the audience is guided from room to room, up and downstairs to a different location for each scene by a Landlady who turns out to be something of a narrator figure. The scenes are drawn from different periods in the history of Sloans. [Read more…]

Fidelio – Opera de Lyon – Edinburgh International Festival

This review should appear at Opera Britannia in due course.

Star Date: 12 August 2013

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

There are many areas of human endeavour where we must applaud glorious failure. Better, surely, that risks are taken than that we make do forever with the urbane and the familiar. The trouble is, when it comes to space travel, risks that don’t come off tend to result in crashes of spectacular intensity. Such is the case with Gary Hill’s interpretation of Fidelio, which for some reason never entirely explained, he chose to set in space.

This was a production with a lot of “concept” going on. It may be some time before we get to the singing but in a sense, that is true to the experience. One was never entirely convinced that the singing was the point of it.

Not only were we to be experiencing Fidelio on a spacecraft, but it was a spacecraft that was first known to humankind through its appearance in a Swedish science fiction poem that was published in the 1950s by Harry Martinson. Thus, we were on the good ship Aniara which somehow had found itself going off-course from its mission to colonise Mars. That it wasn’t the only thing that was going off-course was to become something of a theme of the evening.

It must have been such a wheeze deciding that the principle characters would mostly get around the spacecraft on Segway machines. There is certain dramatic ballet to be had by such machines gliding around. The trouble is, one controls a Segway by shifting one’s balance. It is a delicate operation. That one can persuade opera singers to perform on them is in itself worthy of note. However, directors who consider this course of action in future might be well to observe that if the singers are standing stock still with their hands by their sides in order to prevent themselves whizzing off into the wings, then it is a fair bet that their acting abilities are somewhat curtailed.

It was not always clear why some of the cast appeared on Segways at some points and walked on their legs at others. At one point Fidelio zoomed off-stage into the wings from which one could hear a decisive thud and came back on foot for the rest of the opera. Whether this was an accident or an expression of a new and previously undiscovered level of existential angst in the mind of the director was never clear.

Particular mention should be made of Don Pizzaro’s costume which made one wonder whether the cosmos had somehow conspired to mate the Mikado with a passing armadillo. It should come in handy if Opera de Lyon ever decide to stage the Savoy operas in a lunar safari park. Having seen this production, we must not rule out the possibility. The other costumes by Paulina Wallenberg-Olsson might have some second-hand value if Blake’s 7 is ever re-commissioned.

Then there was the video. Digital projection was not merely a feature of this production so much as its whole raison d’etre. Digital images were projected onto the rear of the stage throughout. Meanwhile, a gauze curtain was hung in front of the action during the whole opera and further digital images were projected onto this. Sometimes they related to the action. Sometimes they didn’t. What they did do was move constantly. Lines, polygons, imagined space-worlds all appeared before our eyes and jiggled and danced before us. It was as though someone was trying to demonstrate what was happening inside the head of someone with attention deficit disorder who was enduring a migraine whilst watching Star Trek. The poor cast, whizzing about on their Segways behind this curtain of dizziness could thus not be seen entirely clearly nor in all cases heard.

And so we come, at last, to thinking about the singing and in this respect it was an opera of two halves. The first half saw some spirited singing by Erika Sunnegårdh as Fidelio/Leonore whilst the second was somewhat energised by Nikolai Schukoff’s Florestan. His cry of injustice from within his prison cell was powerful and heartfelt and suddenly drew one’s attention away from all the digital action that was crowding one’s vision at the time. His voice had enough emotional intensity to focus the mind for a moment on what all this was supposed to be about – a political prisoner incarcerated because he had stood up to a tyrant.

Pavlo Hunka as Don Pizarro, the villain of the piece may well have had a good voice but struggled even more than the others to reach beyond the curtain that hung between him and the audience. Michael Eder produced a little more clarity as Rocco and provided a very solid underpinning to the quartet Mir ist so wunderbar which was a rare moment of tranquillity and a thing of touching beauty. Valentina Naforniţa’s Marzelline and Christian Baumgärtel’s  Jacquino completed that foursome but always sounded better in the tutti pieces than they did on their own.

There was dialogue for them all to negotiate too. New bits of German dialogue which had been written presumably to fit within the concept or which had perhaps been drawn from Harry Martinson’s poem. Either way, it was all rather forgettable, something which the cast seemed intent on demonstrating once or twice by apparently forgetting their lines.

That gauze screen in front of the action was a wretched decision and made it seem as though the action was all taking place within the context not of a theatre but of a conceptual art gallery.

Full marks to the chorus and the orchestra though. They produced some stunning sounds and each at one point or another acted as the booster rockets for a flagging evening. By some distance, the most exciting musical offering of the whole night came from a powerful chorus singing from the back of the stage and mostly invisible.

This was clearly a production which divided its audience. There was laud and raucous booing at the end but mixed in with cries of bravi from some. Perhaps the greatest failing was in billing it as an opera. Had we been encouraged to see it as an art event during which the participants would happen to try to sing Fidelio then we might have been on firmer ground. In billing it as an opera, the Edinburgh International Festival encouraged us to believe that it was in some way an interpretation of that work when in fact it was not.

It is good that there are opportunities for directors to do this kind of thing. It is important that someone reaches for the stars. However, this particular production showed what happens when the risks don’t come off. It was, from time to time, spectacular. The concept itself though was doomed from take off.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Opera Review – David et Jonathas

This review should appear at Opera Britannia shortly.

Les Arts Florissants – Edinburgh Festival – 17 August 2012

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This production of Charpentier’s biblical epic is a showcase for some exquisite vocal work which is delivered despite an incoherent dramatic interpretation which does nothing to aid a modern appreciation of the work at hand.

From the moment the curtain rises, the interpretation of this piece that we are going to be subjected to is clear. The cast stand motionless staring out at the audience in vaguely middle-eastern dress. Then as the music proceeds they separate out into two groups, one on either side of the stage. Our eyes look them over and realise that they are in fact wearing different dress. The men on one side of the stage (the Hebrews) are wearing black felts hats. The men on the other side (the Philistines) are wearing fezes. The two groups glare at one another and it becomes immediately apparent that the director thinks it is reasonable to retell the story of David and Jonathan using the stage directions from a left-over production of The Montagues and Capulets. The trouble is, and it is trouble that bedevils the work from the outset, David and Jonathan are not Romeo and Juliet at all. Their saga is one which is fundamentally about suspected treachery within a royal palace. Saul’s fundamental fear is that he will be overthrown by one of his own not by an enemy. Biblically, it is a saga with more than enough drama to get us through many a night at the opera. Sadly that rich heritage is ignored by a director apparently intent on delivering to us his own peculiar baroque confection which might just as well be entitled West Bank Story.

The sparse set is the inside of a wooden box. It is long. It is rectangular. It is lit with a cold, direct lighting scheme which will do us no favours as the evening progresses. And the sides of the stage move. They move in. They move out. They move in whenever any of the characters is feeling under pressure. They move out when the tension eases. After you’ve seen the walls move in and out a few times it all feels rather predictable. And they move in and they move out all over again.

The moving walls were also used to make smaller cuboid shapes in which some of the scenes were to occur though inevitably, the narrower the stage became, the more that audience members on either side of the stage missed some of the action.

However, notwithstanding this rather dull action on stage it soon became apparent that the joys to be found in the piece are all musical rather than dramatic. The singing was simply gorgeous.

In a strong cast, the two singers playing the title roles were outstanding. Pascal Charbonneau’s David was gentle on the eye and intense in his singing. Ana Quintans as Jonathas had a lightness of touch in her voice that seemed completely effortless. They sang well together though as male tenor kissed female soprano it was difficult to really enter into the conceit of a homoerotic undertone to their relationship.

Neal Davies’s Saul was not only King of Israel but also king of the stage. Though his opposite number in the Philistine army (Frédéric Caton as Achis) was to beat him in battle, Davies was to win the battle of the voices. His Saul was troubled, grieving and difficult to handle. Acted flashback scenes during the musical ballet interludes attempted to give us some insight into Saul’s troubles and why he was so high maintenance. Thus we had two child actors portraying a youthful David and Jonathas being present at the death of Saul’s wife. Now, all this is directorial embellishment, unsupported either by the text used by Charpentier or the text of Holy Writ itself, as any Edinburgh audience Sunday-schooled in presbyterian Morningside would surely have known. They might also have thought that presenting the Witch of Endor in the same outfit as Saul’s imagined wife, the better to call up the ghost of father-figure Samuel the Prophet, was taking one neo-Freudian step too far.

However, here again, though what was happening on stage was quite bewildering, the singing was superb. The stage was filled after a while with many women identically clad as Saul’s imaginary wife. As the Witch sang about King Saul’s troubles the wives all writhed around the stage. It was certainly visually very compelling but one was left wondering what was going on. The appearance of Samuel’s ghost to warn that Saul would come to a bad end was surely deserving of more theatrical magic than simply being sung off-stage to give the effect that Saul was hearing an inner voice. This, combined with the curious decision to move this revelation, which forms the prologue to Charpentier’s work to the end of the first half robbed the story of much of its essential tragedy.

However, that Witch could sing. Dominique Viese’s cross-dressing harpy was weird, strange and bewildering but his voice was one of the great highlights of the evening. Vocally, he was possessed a sorcery that not all countertenor posses; soaring high with a clever and entirely appropriate nastiness.

The star of the show though was not one of its principle singers. Without any doubt, the evening was made worthwhile by the most enchanting choral singing. Even when dealing with the most complex and decorated sections of Charpentier’s sumptuous score, the chorus of Les Arts Florissant was disciplined, precise and graced with vocal depth and insight. The greatest test of a choir is whether it can move me in a single word. As Jonathas lay dying in David’s arms, the whole ensemble cried “Alas, alas” with such pathos that the effect was heart-rending.

Down in the pit it was obvious that William Christie was firmly in charge.  A few early fluffs in the woodwind were soon put far from mind as the band got into its stride with Charpentier’s complicated and much embroidered rhythms. Particular note should be paid to whoever was operating the thunder sheet. The thunder appeared to roll around the theatre, unsettling and very real indeed.

The Edinburgh International Festival has made a great habit of putting on semi-staged works in recent years. It was disappointing that this fully staged piece would probably have worked better in an oratorio setting than by being given this dull and also confusing staging by director Andreas Homoki.

William Christie first tackled this piece in a great recording in 1998. The passion remains in the music. The business on stage did little to enhance the thrill and excitement of hearing Les Arts Florissants, still at the top of their game.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Opera Review

The following review should appear soon at Opera Britannia.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Janáček’s strange opera The Makropulos Case is a curious mix of psychological horror and puzzling fantasy. Who is the central character Emilia Marty and what gives her so much knowledge of the affairs of others?

Opera North’s new production is a stirring attempt to showcase and make sense of a difficult plot which has naught for our comfort whilst taking us on a compelling and exciting musical ride.

All of the business starts in a lawyers’ office where legal minds have been kept in clover for decades trying to sort out a particularly complicated inheritance case. As the curtain goes up, lawyers and their clerks are trying to sort through piles of casework. Within this cramped, oppressive set, it felt as though all the boxes of papers and legal bundles are about to fall on everyone’s heads. A moody colour scheme – olives and jades was given some excitement with a classy lighting design by Bruno Poet. Strong shadows seemed to conjure up the feeling of an old black and white thriller. Costumes too seemed to place us in the early years of the movies.

Mark Le Broqc and James Cresswell put in confident performances as the legal team – clerk and lawyer respectfully. Even stronger though was Robert Haywood as Baron Prus. His expansive baritone was the perfect tool for declaiming the baron’s legal claims to property and inheritance that should have been sorted out years before. Sadly, this contrasted a little with Adrian Dwyer who was playing his son Janek. There felt to be something very easy and relaxed about Hawood’s voice, in contrast to the rather forced, narrow tone of his son. Janek dies an early death. We wept no tears for him.

Stephanie Corley put in sterling work as Kristina, Vitek’s daughter. She is a putative opera singer and like many a diva in waiting before her, Ms Corley flitted around the stage, a whirlwind of anxiety and emotion. Through all of this though, she managed to hold on to her voice and punch her way through her part with a delightful precision.

The male protagonist, Paul Nilon as Albert Gregor was confident and secure and a joy to listen to. He seemed to manage better than anyone else on stage to make sense of Norman Tucker’s sometimes rather ragged translation. Gregor needs must come to terms with falling in love with his great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother. (Or something like that – one started by thinking that Mr Freud would be a useful person to have around but ended by wanting a mathematician).

Comic relief was provided by Nigel Robson as an elderly count with whom the central character had an affair many years before. Robson stoked up the fires of passion and showed what a giggle one can make from a cameo role with a belter of a voice and a twinkle in one’s eye.

Amongst an otherwise well balanced cast, Ylva Kihlberg as Emilia Marty completely owned the stage from her first appearance. This central role is a tricky one for any singer. After all, she finally leaves us not with a consumptive cough but by aging 300 years before our very eyes. Such a transformation really does require a singer who really can act and Ms Kihlberg did not disappoint in that department at all. She was electric in the first Act where, from the moment she appeared, every other movement on the stage seemed either to be directed by or be a response to flashes from her eyes.

Vocally she was perhaps not quite so fearless. Within the plot, Emilia Marty (or perhaps EM, as she inhabits various personalities always with those initials) is an opera singer. Oh the irony if the person playing her is unable to quite carry the hopes and expectations of the audience. A slightly tentative first Act didn’t show off Ms Kihlberg voice to the best of her ability but as the score became richer as the evening progressed, so thankfully, she managed to find a greater vibrancy.

Emilia Marty, of course turns out to really be Elina Makropulos who was born in 1585 and who has been kept alive by means of a longevity potion invented by her father. The greatest drama of the evening came right at the end of the piece when the existence of the potion was revealed and was offered around the stage by EM to all those who had seen the anguish of her sudden aging. The men all refuse but young Kristina snatched it from EM’s hand with great flourish not to apply it to herself but to burn it forever. As she stood with a flaming page held aloft in her hand she looked for all the world like the Statue of Liberty. As the formula burns away, EM dies but even to her last breath it was clear that she was undecided whether she wanted to depart this life or live forever. The play is a brilliant judgement on our aspirations of longevity. Should we chose to extend our lives, we risk having seen it all, long before life leaves us. Freedom is only freedom when the expectation of losing it in death is both absolute and unpredictable.

Down in the pit, it seemed that Richard Farnes and the orchestra were enjoying themselves though did take just a little while to get into their stride. There was more energy and vitality about them by the end of the evening than there was at the beginning. Top marks to the brass for fulfilling Janáček’s not inconsiderable demands.

In directing this piece, Tom Cairns took relatively few risks. Sadly one interesting idea fell very flat with a very strangely timed curtain fall at the end of Act 1. The idea was to take us from the lawyers office in Act 1 to the stage of the theatre where EM has been performing. It was a very clever idea to try to introduce the scene on the theatre stage by having EM appear before an applauding audience and take her bows. The sound of an audience applauding had been recorded and was all ready to be played in the auditorium to give Ms Kihlberg something to curtsey to. Unfortunately the curtain had fallen too early in Act 1 for the audience to be sure of what was going on. Instead of greeting the first act with applause, when the music stopped rather suddenly, everyone looked at one another in complete puzzlement. Silence and then an awkward clapping was thus then followed by a recording of a much more appreciative audience. What might have been a coup de theatre if the stage could have been set very quickly, became rather embarrassing. Had the audience greeted the first act with rapturous applause and then EM appeared on stage to courtesy and take her bows leading in to the second Act which all takes place on a theatre stage after a production, the effect would have been simply stunning. One hopes that this rather clunky transition might be sorted out before the production hits the usual Opera North venues.

Notwithstanding this stutter, the evening gradually became something more rather than less of the sum of its parts. Janacek’s stunning score helps of course. As the chattering rhythms ricocheted around the pit in the final Act, all the singers were fully engaged and one felt that the production was running at full pelt. As EM declaimed to one and all the frustrations of living an extra three hundred years she became more and more fascinating. As she aged, she appeared to inhabit different characters – at one time appearing to channel Garbo and yet all too soon embodying a savage but frighteningly glamorous Mrs Thatcher. Chilling, and naught for your comfort, as I said.

Note to the Director: Brilliant idea having three prominent clocks on stage all counting towards midnight during the last act faster than in real time.
Note to the Stage Manager: All the clocks need to keep the same time thoughout.

Tick tock!

Rating: ★★★★☆

Tosca- Scottish Opera Review

Rating: ★★★½☆
This review appeared first at Opera Britannia

Scottish Opera’s revival of Anthony Besch’s Tosca offers a rewarding evening, though not one without its problems. Vocally, this is a Tosca not to be missed. Unfortunately, most of the evening is marred by insensitive conducting and far too much noise from the pit.

The production itself has been a very successful one and surely owes the company no debts now. This is, believe it or not, the eighth time it has been revived and it has done more globetrotting than Scottish Opera productions usual manage, being seen as far afield as New Zealand and the USA. Such success is based on a solid, confident director who clearly knew what he was doing by updating the action to 1940s fascist Italy. It is immensely pleasing to look at and fits its shiny jackboots perfectly.

We begin, of course, in church. The church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome to be precise. And we begin at something of a gallop as Paul Carey Jones races onto the stage from behind a wonderfully painted pillar: as Angelotti, the prisoner on the run from the regime, Jones presented a terrified figure searching for safety. Vocally, he was excellent – the only trouble with his character being that Angelotti comes to a bad end all too soon and the glorious singing is silenced. Jones left us wishing for much more and that is a good place to leave us.

Meanwhile, David Morrison gave some good comic business as the befuddled Sacristan but whatever he was doing was completely overwhelmed by the volume of the orchestra. Here and at many points during the evening the band were simply far too loud. At one point in the first Act, the back of the stage was filled with a large chorus who were apparently singing but rendered almost completely inaudible by the goings on below. They moved their lips but the effect was more of a silent movie than of going to the opera. The music shone like the sun in Francesco Corti’s hands but a sun which completely eclipsed all we had come to see and hear. If one can’t hear the singing at all then one might as well be at an orchestral concert. Or, heaven forefend, the ballet.

There was lots of detail going on in the background to catch the eye whilst the ear was deafened. Some of the liturgical business in church was a little odd though. Did people in Italy in the 1940s really cross themselves and genuflect towards a holy water stoup, even if it was surmounted with a Madonna and child? I have my doubts, but whether they did or they didn’t, no Italian bishop ever appeared centre stage at the front of a liturgical procession. Some of the liturgical carelessness could be forgiven by the presence on stage of the most glorious cope and mitre this side of the alps but other things which niggled suggested a production which needed to wear a little more of its heart on its sleeve. There was no water in the aspergillum, no incense in the thurible and worst of all, no blood on Tosca’s hands despite a rather energetic stabbing of the villain. Was it all perhaps just a little too neat and tidy?

Which brings us to Tosca herself.

Susannah Glanville’s Tosca was a revelation. She was marvellously histrionic and clearly something of an emotional handful. She raided the perfect diva’s toolbox and offered us every possible swoon, fluttered eyelash and gasp imaginable. And she could sing like a linnet too. Emotionally, Miss Glanville left one feeling entirely drawn into her passions and fears. Her voice was never less than beautiful, even amidst all her troubles. However, here again there was trouble from below, as chief amongst her torments were the orchestra who nearly drowned out much of her more gentle singing. Notwithstanding that, one was still left secure in the knowledge that this was a first rate performance and that Tosca’s tragedy was Miss Glanville’s triumph. After stabbing the chief of police at the end of Act Two, this Tosca was visibly a whole whirlpool of emotion and her gentle setting down of two candles by his corpse was at once both tender and chilling.

Wonderfully, the two other male leads were tiptop too. José Ferrero’s Cavaradossi was the stable point about which Tosca’s emotional world whirled. At first, I was unsure whether there was going to be enough of a vocal palette of colours for this painter to draw upon. But Ferrero’s voice quickly warmed up and a rather narrow and slightly constricted sound soon gave way to something much more satisfying. His duet passages with Miss Glanville in the final act were by far the most emotionally successful moments of the entire evening – a glorious paean to freedom – and, joy of joys, Puccinni gives us them unaccompanied.

Star of the show though was undoubtedly Robert Poulton’s Baron Scarpia. It did not so much feel that Poulton owned this stage but that in his fascist outfit he would sooner or later own every stage. His was a villain who clearly did bad things before breakfast and had made cruelty his career. And yet he was mesmerising. Poulton’s was also the voice which was best able to deal with the over-eager orchestra. It was shone out, as polished as his jackboots and stalked the whole theatre to within an inch of its life. That’s the trouble with charismatic fascists – they are uncomfortably attractive and Poulton’s Scarpia niggled away at us all for our being utterly fascinated by his every move.

It is difficult to pass judgement on this evening. It has been, over the years, a hugely successful production and one can instantly see why. Anthony Besch was confident and assured in what he was doing over thirty years ago and this one has certainly stood the test of time and bears up well to being revived under the direction of Jonathan Cocker. Vocally, there was without doubt some five star singing going on. However, if you can’t always hear the singing, those stars start to fall from sky faster than a diva dropping from the battlements.

Review: Hansel and Gretel

This review is also published (with some pictures) at Opera Britannia

Hansel & Gretel – Engelbert Humperdinck
Rating: ★★★½☆
Theatre Royal, Glasgow – 4 February 2012, Scottish Opera

Just a dozen or so years before Engelbert Humperdinck wrote his most famous opera, the world was tasting saccharine for the first time. The great danger with Hansel and Gretel is that it will taste much the same. Bill Bankes-Jones’s production of Hansel and Gretel for Scottish Opera managed to find enough that is dark and sinister to ensure that we were not overwhelmed by sweetness but still managed to produce an evening where the sheer beauty of the music leads the production from beginning to end. [Read more…]

Opera Review – Orpheus in the Underworld

Scottish Opera – 10 September 2011

As published on Opera Britannia

Rating: ★★★★☆

Scottish Opera is at the start of taking a bawdy romp around Scotland and Northern Ireland with an inventive, witty and utterly filthy Orpheus in the Underworld. This is an exemplary touring show – satirical, relevant, well sung and with plenty of naughtiness to torment Tain, disgust Dumfries or provoke outrage in Armagh. That it very precisely sets out to subvert petty morality with its portrayal of the hypocrisies of Public Opinion will make achieving such outrage all the sweeter. [Read more…]

Rigoletto Review – Scottish Opera

Rating: ★★★★☆

Here’s the review that I wrote for Opera Britannia of Scottish Opera’s current Rigoletto:

From the moment the curtain went up on this stylish and beautifully sung Rigoletto, it was clear that this was going to be a confident production. We saw a dark, blank stage with only a simple door, drawn slightly carelessly as though with chalk. It was but the first of many bold visual images which punctuated an assured and very satisfying musical achievement.

This single door soon gave way to a barrier wall, upon which red curtaining had been painted, which consisted of a further series of doors, through which we could glimpse a ball in progress. What was not immediately apparent was that when we first caught sight of the malevolent chorus of courtiers, they were not in fact dancing with real women at all but with a series of mannequins. These eerie plastic figures were to recur throughout the evening in what was to prove a strong and well thought through staging. The twenty-six strong chorus themselves, when not larking about with mannequins, were in good heart and good voice throughout.

The first to shine on stage was Edgaras Montvidas whose Duke of Mantua was a force to be reckoned with. This duke was a cocky soul, strutting his stuff whenever he was on stage. Montvidas has a voice which perfectly matched the bravado which he brought to his part. This was a Duke who was arrogant, brash, conceited and vain but it was clear too that he had a great deal on offer vocally to be conceited about. His Parmi veder le lagrime in the second act seemed particularly effortless and whilst it is difficult to bring anything new to La donna è mobile, Montvidas gave an assured rendition all the same.

The Duke’s jester, Rigoletto was played by Eddie Wade.  Here was a brilliant performance. Wade’s unfortunate hunchback [Read more…]

Opera Review – Intermezzo

[This review was recently published at the Opera Britannia website and can be seen there with pictures from the show].

Strauss’s Intermezzo is seldom performed and consequently not particularly widely known. Scottish Opera’s new production (directed by Wolfgang Quetes) is an attempt to rescue the reputation of a difficult and troubling work which, though it has wonderful music throughout, never quite allows us to escape a suspicion that what we are watching is a rather vicious public shaming by the composer of his wife.

In a world in which we are used to watching the inner turmoil of dysfunctional relationships played out on the small screen, it is surprising how shocking it remains for them to be performed before our eyes on the opera stage.

The plot, such as it is, is this. A famous composer (obviously supposed to be Strauss himself) is in a stormy marriage with an untrusting, yet not entirely faithful wife (obviously supposed to be Pauline, Strauss’s wife). Though she has a dalliance with a young student baron who tries his hardest to tap her for money, she reacts hysterically when she wrongly suspects her husband of playing fast and loose with women in Vienna. In the end she discovers that the composer’s virtue is intact and domestic bliss is restored. The opera’s origins came about some 20 years after the real life events in the Strauss household which are described therein. So hot to handle was it at the time that several librettists turned the job down and in the end Strauss was compelled to set his own text. [Read more…]