Madama Butterfly – Review

Here’s a review of Madama Butterfly from Scottish Opera which I saw just before I was signed off sick. This also appears on the Opera Britannia blog.

Rating: ★★★★☆

For their final show in an uncertain season, Scottish Opera return to form with an achingly beautiful revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Madama Butterfly from the turn of the millennium. It looks good, sounds good and the final denouement is completely devastating.

The production is dominated by Hye-Youn Lee’s Cio-Cio San. From her first appearance accompanied by her cooing relatives, she was mesmerising. She also managed to navigate the transition from young girl to married mother perfectly, seeming to grow in stature and maturity before our eyes. A particular highlight came at the end of her “Ancora un passo”where the top notes simply shimmered into view like a mirage. This was effortless singing which showed how laboured other sopranos can seem. Her “Un bel di” was also perfectly judged. Sung simply from centre stage with no action or stage business to distract us, one could feel the golden glimmer of the sun in her voice. Even at this point, it was clear that Butterfly’s devotion to her man was complete and final.

Her man himself, Pinkerton, was played by José Ferrero. Now,I’ve only hear Ferrero once before (in Tosca in 2012) and was struck then by the fact that he seemed to need time to loosen up a bit on stage before getting into his stride. It was the same in this production, where one feared at first that he might simply have more volume on offer than emotion. There’s nothing wrong with his voice once he’s been on stage for 20 minutes but one fears initially that there is not going to be much warmth. In this production, it was unfortunate for him that at the start of proceedings he was up against Adrian Thomson’s excellent Goro, the marriage broker. Wonderfully clear diction and a sense of businesslike mischief showed us who was in charge, and it certainly wasn’t Pinkerton.

Hanna Hipp provided strong support to Ms Hye-Youn as her maid Suzuki.This was a confident Scottish Opera debut and one hopes to hear more of her. She was particularly effective in the final scene where Butterfly herself seemed often to be serenely committed to her fate whilst Suzuki’s reactions betrayed the true horror of the impending suicide.

Christopher Purves makes for an admirable Sharpless, the American consul. The consul is at the heart of the conspiracy of male power over women in Madama Butterfly. The men are all bad news for the vulnerable Butterfly and yet Purves manages to find a nobility in his voice which suggests that he really does care about her predicament, even if he is powerless to do much to help her.

One of the most confident young performances that I’ve seen on stage came from Barnaby Jones as Sorrow, Butterfly’s son. This non-singing role is crucial to the whole opera. If we don’t feel caught up in this boy’s predicament when Pinkerton comes to take him off to America then the whole project is a failure, no matter how devastating it may be that his mother dies. Barnaby Jones was on stage for a long time and never flagged at all, providing absolute focus to the final scenes. At the end, he was left blindfolded in a single stark spotlight from above before the final blackout. It was simply a devastating ending to the whole production and would have been impossible without such a strong performance from such a young performer.

The design by Yannis Thavoris uses a cool, Japanese minimalism to great effect. The production never feels rushed or busy and leaves very strong visual scenes imprinted on the mind, particularly the gentle beauty of Suzuki and Butterfly scattering blossoms around the house in the second act. The lighting design was sensitive and thoughtful with the odd exception of a very weird moon during the long duet at the end of the first act. One suspects that even though they appeared to be deeply in love and fixated with one another, Butterfly and Pinkerton would surely have paid some attention to the lunar eclipse that was rolling horizontally along the horizon behind them. Robert B Dickson, the Revival Lighting Designer (taking over from the original designer Paule Constable) maybe needs to go for a walk on a dark moonlit night. However, this was a solitary jarring feature.

There is, or there ought to be, much that is disturbing for a modern audience to reflect on in Madama Butterfly. Any production invites us to enter uncritically into a world where young women are disposable and can be bought and sold. We are invited to witness the marriage of an older cruel man to a slip of a girl and to see her motivation and devotion as something more than simply naive. Here, McVicar managed to bring out a strong sense that all of the men involved are trouble from the word go. This is also a world where the gods, Japanese and American alike, refuse to turn up yet here there was a striking integrity in Butterfly’s devotion and inner world. Meanwhile, we get to see an outer world in which Yankee imperialism is seen as utterly triumphant. Yet in this production, the more American Butterfly tries to become, the more Japanese she turns out to be.

Down in the pit, the orchestra seemed to be enjoying having Marco Guidarini in charge. They sounded both perky and under control – something that has not always been the case in recent years with Scottish Opera.

It is wonderful to have McVicar’s production revived under Elaine Kidd. At the end of a somewhat precarious season for Scottish Opera, one must hope that this is the shape of things to come and not merely a fond glance over the shoulder to what the company was once capable of.

Opera Review – Macbeth – Scottish Opera

Here’s my review of Scottish Opera’s latest production, as posted at Opera Britannia. The exclamation marks are obviously not my own and have been added by an editor.
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Scottish Opera’s revival of Dominic Hill’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth is something of a mixed bag that is saved by several confident performances, most notably that of Elisabeth Meister as Lady Macbeth. Before we think about the singing though, we must discuss the curtain. By understanding the curtain, we can understand the whole of this production!

Scottish Opera is currently out of its usual Theatre Royal base in Glasgow whilst that theatre has major improvement work undertaken. This show took us across the river to the Citizens Theatre where simply due to the relative sizes of the buildings, any show is going to seem much smaller and more intimate. Now, the Theatre Royal has pretentions to the grand whilst the Citzens wears its faded grandeur with pride. And walking into the theatre we find that someone has unravelled a piece of string across the stage and hung a grime-laden piece of cloth inelegantly across the stage. The cloth itself looks as though it has been dragged around every venue in Scotland. It looks so grubby and untidy that one wonders whether someone has dragged it through Birnam Wood itself. The string sags in the middle and the curtain droops. It is a metaphor for what we will see unfold from a company that one fears has itself got a case of the droop.

For this production has indeed been all around Scotland and on the first night of this revival it was already feeling a little tired. It transpires that the production is a revival not of a main stage show but of a much pared down Macbeth, which was part of Scottish Opera’s commitment to tour opera to small and often unlikely venues in 2005 with a small band of seven singers and only a piano for accompaniment. In this revival the piano is gone, to be replaced by a small orchestra of just 18 players (a larger band is due in Edinburgh) making it difficult to decide whether we are seeing something that is essentially a big show cut to the bone or an already emasculated production being beefed up.

The curtain barely covers the set which itself only covers the lower half of the stage, the back walls clearly visible beyond. The set itself, such as it is, doesn’t do much to distinguish one place from another. It is a grungy, dirty interior – somewhere in a war zone. This is to be a production of Verdi’s version of the Scottish Play in Scotland by Scottish Opera that makes no reference to Scotland.

So…….on to the singing. [Read more…]

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…]

Pirates of Penzance: Review

Rating: ★★★★☆

(This review should appear at Opera Britannia in due course)

Scottish Opera and the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company have set sail with a sure-fire summer hit with their new production of Pirates of Penzance. A real crowd pleaser, this production deserves the success that it will undoubtedly have.

It became quickly obvious during the overture that this was a production that we were intended to laugh at. The seagull saw to that, first being heard crying plaintively above the sound of the orchestra and then appearing on strings from the very top of the proscenium and flying around over an azure curtain. When a pirate boat also appeared on strings from on high to float around on the sea that we were now seeing shimmering in front of us, before ramming into a large map of the West Country that had dropped down in pythonesque style from the heavens it was equally clear that the audience was not supposed to stop laughing from beginning to end.

Musically this was also a confident performance with strong leads and some phenomenal choral singing.

The Pirate King was first up on stage. Steven Page  led a competent crew  who appeared slithering about the deck of a cartoon ship. His voice had a satisfying dark molasses rum quality about it rather than the more effete pirate sherry which was soon being shared among the hands. The pirate crew themselves were shipshape in every respect. Buckling their swashes to and fro as the deck apparently surged under them they still managed a cracking first number that was to foreshadow strong and confident choral singing throughout the piece.

Rosie Aldridge’s Ruth was next. Her maid of all work certainly was intended to look plain but there was nothing plain about her voice which was notable not least for the most impeccable diction as well as a warm and comely tone.

Two lead couples are alternating as this production tours. On this first night, Nicholas Sharratt and Stephanie Corley sang Frederic and Mabel and did so as a pair of innocent and bemused youngsters never entirely sure what was happening to them – he dipping into a volume of “Scouting for Boys” for tips on how to behave just as often as she looked into a copy of “Scouting for Girls”. Sharratt’s lyric tenor tone fitted his character like a glove. Though clearly more at home in the upper register, he was never found wanting all evening. Miss Corley’s Mabel meanwhile was a bluestockinged delight. Although I did not immediately warm to her voice, it soon became clear that what she could do with it was delicious. Fortunately, Mabel quickly gets the chance to dazzle with dizzying coloratura delights and Miss Corley took the opportunity of decorating all her cadenzas with sparkling surprises to demonstrate what she had to offer.

Richard Suart had the Modern Major General’s patter off pat to be sure but was much more entertaining whilst his daughters were squeezing themselves into a tight chapel all around him at the start of Act II.

Graeme Broadbent’s  Sergeant of Police came straight out of the ministry of silly walks. There was nothing silly about his voice itself which was deep and rich. However there’s only so much comedy one can take and still listen to the music at all. His comic movements, gurning face and Yorkshire accent conspired a little to detract from the singing.

There were generally too many accents going on through the production. Neither Broadbent’s comedy Yorkshire policeman’s accent nor Andrew McTaggart’s comedy Glasgwegian Samuel (the Pirate King’s Lieutenant) did much to add to the fun. Someone seemed to have forgotten that a clipped Received Pronunciation heard in Glasgow is far funnier than the vernacular.

The daughters themselves were a wonderful ensemble of chattering beauties who were easily the equal of the male chorus.

Indeed, it was the choral singing of Hail Poetry that produced the most dramatic and surprising moment of the whole evening. Singing full-face to the audience, this was an astonishingly powerful paean that simply pinned the audience to its seats whilst causing every spine to tingle. After this chorus had hailed poetry, one wanted to stand on one’s seat and declaim verse to all around. It would be worth seeing the whole show just for that breathtaking cry of praise.

Visually there was much to look at. Costumewise, this was a fairly traditional production – full bustles and petticoats on the many daughters, pirates with blacked out grinning teeth and plodding policemen looking just as ridiculous as real policemen in helmets always do. However, designer Jamie Vartan seemed to have decided that in his mind, Roy Lichtenstein and the entire Monty Python crew should be in the wings conspiring to send pop-art cartoon props flying around them all. It did work and contributed hugely to the relentless humour.

There does come a moment when one has to ask what it being lampooned though. The Savoy Operas were great satires on the society around them. The only really significant weakness in this production is that the laughs (and there are a great many of them) are not so much sending up Victorian morals and Victorian institutions but sending up Victoriana in general and the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan in particular. One has to wonder when the laughter dies whether that is entirely the point.

Had all the pirates been Scots intent on harrying Little Englandshire in these pre-Referendum days in Scotland then we might have been on to something rather biting. All the more so if their piracy had been bought off with seats in the House of Lords. Ermine clad pirates bowing down to a tartan bedecked Victoria might well have nudged the production back into the satirical sea that Mr Gilbert surely intended us to navigate, never sure whether our pretensions would founder on the rocks of irony and sarcasm. As it was, this was a relatively safe production that steered well away from making us actually think about ourselves.

Of course, satire-lite played for laughs is only one custard pie away from slapstick and this production veered frighteningly close to that meridian more than once.

Notwithstanding those reservations, it isn’t difficult to recommend this show. It is laugh out loud funny and musically secure. Derek Clark conducted with more than enough aplomb to encourage us to hope that some of the recent difficulties that have beset Scottish Opera’s pit might be regarded as things of distant memory.

Director Martin Lloyd-Evans has a hit on his hands. That’s good news for Scottish Opera. Good news for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company who come back to life after 10 years of slumbers And it is good news for Mr Gilbert and Mr Sullivan. They are not passé yet.

Opera Review: The Flying Dutchman – Scottish Opera

11. Scottish Opera's The Flying Dutchman. Credit James Glossop. 2013.

Theatre Royal, Glasgow – 4 April 2013

Rating: ★★½☆☆

This review should appear at Opera Britannia in due course.

An underwhelming lead and a mismatched cast make this Scottish Opera production something of a mixed bag. However, one stunning voice and an absolutely electric chorus offer some reasons for seeing this production.

Scottish Opera attempts to bring the Dutchman home at last in this production which is set, not in Norway but on the east coast of Scotland as Wagner had apparently considered when he was writing it. Thus, Darland becomes Donald and Erik the huntsman becomes George the minister. Sadly, someone missed a trick not renaming Senta as Senga, the local diminutive backslang for Agnes and Senta remained Senta throughtout.

During the overture, the stage was filled with a confusing projected cloud scene and rather strangely the house lights came up and went down for no apparent reason. This somehow caught the mood of the orchestra who from beginning to end were playing well below their top form. Fluffed entries, particularly in the horns and higher woodwind and intonation problems in every section were the order of the evening.

It was something of a relief when the curtain rose to reveal an interesting and inventive set. On his travels this time, the Dutchman was apparently drawing into an east coast fishing town about forty years ago. We saw one side of the pier wall of a harbour with the boats appearing beyond in the distance. Donald’s boat appeared and soon the male chorus of sailors was appearing on stage. climbing up onto the harbour. Leaving aside the question of how so many of them came from what appeared to be a relatively small boat, it was one of the most convincing vessels I’ve ever seen on stage, the pilot house bobbing about on the far side of the wall as though the whole thing was afloat.

The idea of setting all the action in the Scottish port rather than either out at sea or in Norway was a brave choice but one which the director  Harry Fehr can feel rightly rather proud of. It worked very well.

The spookiest moment in the production was taken by the first appearance of the ghost ship. Whilst Donald’s boat was all too real, the spectral vessel was projected onto an enormous backstage screen in silhouette completely dominating the stage. This was Video Designer Ian William Galloway’s finest hour and we can forgive him one or two extra swirling clouds for this brooding and quite frightening presence.

But what about the singing?

First up on the pier were Donald the captain and his helmsman accompanied by an enormous cast of fishermen. Nicky Spence  as the randy helmsman had perhaps the most interesting voice of the men on stage. His cocky tone was matched by much swaggering about. Whereas Spence had colour in his voice, Scott Wilde as Donald the Captain had volume on offer. Perhaps he had come to the piece aware that he would be fighting Francesco Corti’s direction of the orchestra which was too loud as usual. Wilde adopted the manner of a foghorn in order to make himself heard through the murk and the mist of the sounds from the pit. Though we could hear him, not a great deal of emotion was conveyed by a voice which was harsh and lacked any real sympathy with the text.

And then on came the Dutchman.

Peteris Eglitis has been promoted by Scottish Opera as a great catch for this role. Singing the Flying Dutchman for the first time, Eglitis has considerable Wagnerian experience to draw on. That made it all the more surprising that his performance was decidedly underwhelming and lacking in lustre. One suspects that he might have had an interesting interpretation had he been able to overcome the presence of the orchestra. However that was not to be and rather than a sense of excitement in his singing there was a rather dull tone which left one feeling slightly disappointing.

The best singing of Act I came undeniably from the huge cast of sailors. They brought a high testosterone energy to the piece which kept the spirits up admirably. They were equally matched by a similarly large crowd of women awaiting them on shore in Act II. The women had the advantage of an astonishing female lead to rally around in the form of Rachel Nicholls’s Senta who was by a long distance the best voice on the stage.

Miss Nicholls had drama, passion and a kind of manic determination to find her true love that made one sure that this flying Scotswoman was going to be the equal of anything the sea blew in and more. Her singing of the ballad of the Flying Dutchman (Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an) was riveting. Indeed it was worth seeing the whole show for. There was a crazed intensity about her voice which was perfect for the piece.

Solid support came from Sarah Pring’s Mary and Jeff Gwaitney’s George. However, there was no real doubt that once we had heard Miss Nicholls, everyone else was going to pale into insignificance. Quite why George was a minister wearing a dog-collar as well as a hunter carrying a gun was never entirely obvious. He needed the gun at the end of the piece to finish things off, but what he was doing wandering about making the sign of the cross was something of a mystery.

Act III took us back to the pier and some more electric choral singing. The vocal battle between Donald’s sailors and those of the ghost-ship was unconventional (the spectres voices being amplified through speakers behind us in the auditorium) but hugely exciting. It was as though the audience suddenly became the waves separating the two competing choruses. This was the high point of the dramatic action of the evening. However this was somewhat undone by the rather effete revels of the sailors which lacked any sense of confidence.

The director had employed Movement Director Kally Lloyd-Jones  to reflect on what should be done with a crowd of drunken sailors and her answer was that they should do the conga. One suspects that a real bunch  of Peterhead fishermen would have headed for a white pudding supper and a pint of heavy. These men appeared to be satisfied with neat diagonally-cut sandwiches and some party hats. They then proceeded to do the conga across the stage. Unless this was the hitherto little known party habits of the Morningside Fishing Fleet, this was a moment of silly banality in a show that had seemed to want to convey something much more butch and brutal.

Ultimately, all came to an unconventional end. Senta didn’t throw herself off a cliff but took a knife to herself to prove herself true to her Dutchman in death. Jealous George the minister then appeared to finish off the Dutchman with the gun that he had been inexplicably carrying for the whole of the evening. There was the guts of a good idea here but George’s incoherent character did rather get in the way of something solid and satisfying.

Though this production had much to commend it in the singing of the chorus and in Miss Nicholls astonishing performance there were also too many things that got in the way of a perfect night out. The cast was mismatched from the word go and once those singers had been chosen, one suspects that there was little that could be done to sort things out. The orchestra should have been playing better though one wonders whether it was simply a case of being under-rehearsed rather than incompetent. Perhaps things will improve during the run. If so, it is a management problem and not fundamentally a musical one.

All in all, a mixed bag. Next time the Flying Dutchman puts into port, one hopes for a tighter production than this one.

Two and a half stars.

Picture Credit: James Glossop

Review: Werther – Scottish Opera

This review appeared first at Opera Britannia

The start of Scottish Opera’s new production of Massenet’s Werther is deceptive. As the curtain goes up we have a pleasant enough scene. A wooden structure is present with what look like rickety stairs. Snow soon starts to fall at the rear of the stage – snow that will continue to fall for much of the production. Pretty soon, a troop of pretty children appear and are being taught to sing a Christmas carol by their father. A finely gift-wrapped box is passed from one character to another and one starts to expect that by the time we meet our hero Jonathan Boyd as Werther, he will be complaining that his tiny hand is frozen and that we will be hearing all about pretty romantic love in a cold garret, whilst pretty urchins churn out one Christmas ditty after another. The whole thing seemed to set us up for a night of Christmas slush derived from the still fast-falling snow.

However, it was not to be. [Read more…]

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…]

Review: Betrothal in a Monastery

Scottish Opera and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland 20 January 2012

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery is seldom staged in this country. This production by Scottish Opera in collaboration with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland worked reasonably well as a showcase for the singing talents of those on stage. However, no persuasive case was made for the piece itself and the staging was sloppy and careless from the outset.

One of the oddest things about this opera is its title. Though several couples do indeed end up wedding one another in a monastery, the monastery itself plays no part in the plot other than as a setting for a bunch of monks to carouse and throw pillows at one another. The actual plot itself is merely a case of one or two mistaken romantic identities.

The curious thing about this opera is how busy it feels. No one dies, no one falls in love, no one cross-dresses and despite the presence of considerable numbers of people on stage in religious orders, no-one gets their head chopped off. [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…]