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. Yet, though little really happens, one is somehow left confused by the goings on. There are perhaps too many characters. Prokofiev’s librettist apparently did not know when to stop.

It was obvious from the beginning that Rodula Gaitanou the director was struggling to make any sense of the plot. We were greeted at first with the outside wall of a building with signs pointing in one direction towards the monastery and in the other to a convent. It looked like a very convincing entrance to an Italian public toilet. This facade then rose to reveal what was inside.

Now, one might expect to find a monastery inside a monastery wall but no, that would be too simple. Inside this monastery wall was a fish restaurant and a large cast partaking of fish whilst the two protagonists, fish merchant Mendoza and his friend Don Jerome made the bargain on which the plot, such as it is, turns.

However, even before this grand reveal, all was not well. On entering the theatre it was possible to see from the dress circle, members of the cast on the far side of the wall and even if they had not been visible their bobbing shadows were easily seen on the left hand side wall. This was the first example of poor lighting design which was to dog the whole show. Shadows kept appearing and light kept on being reflected, from those not yet on the stage.

However, no-one goes to the opera to see the lighting design. So what about the singing?

Here we were on slightly surer ground.

Andrew Tipple’s Mendoza and Rónan Busfield’s Jerome sang the opening movements very well. The trouble is, this section is a lengthy paean to fish and fishing, and neither the music nor the words take us very far into the plot for a very long time.

Things did hot up considerably when we met Kim-Lillian Strebel’s Lousia and her paramour, Emanoel Velozo’s Don Antonio. Miss Strebel’s voice was articulate, confident and clear as a bell. Meanwhile, Velozo’s tenor was pure and promising. The several repeated duets that they have had a staggering and unexpected beauty. By the end of the evening, Velozo had seemed to have lost some of his earlier shine, making one wonder whether he needed to work a good deal more on his stamina.

The other young couple also had much to offer. Anush Hovhannisyan had seemed to have an ordinary, workaday kind of voice as Clara until the moment when she was called upon to masquerade as a nun. In that moment, she seemed utterly transformed. The suddenly sublime tone that she found was unexpected but not unwelcome and apparently heaven sent.

Miss Hovhannisyan was playing opposite Mikhail Pavlov’s fantastic Don Fernando. Pavlov had the most striking voice of the evening. He was rich, polished, plenteous and an utter joy to listen to.

Amongst the other singing parts (23 are listed in the programme as having singing credits) the one most in need of singling out was Andrew McTaggart’s Don Carlos. It would have been good to hear more of him and hard not to think we won’t in the future.

Down in the pit, all was not well. The orchestra of Scottish Opera were joined by 20 or so of the Royal Scottish Conservatoire’s musicians. Together they seemed intent on proving that they could play either quietly or in tune but never both at the same time.

Notwithstanding the problems coming from below, there is a lot of time to fill when no-one is singing. Back up on stage, a company of punks had been introduced to proceedings. It is hard to know why the punks were there or indeed to know whether the reason the whole production had been thrust into the early 1980’s was simply to include a bunch of punks. However, for whatever reason, we had punks aplenty. Their offering was a series of choreographed poses and dance movements which, though at first seeming affected and jarring, did eventually draw one in and which did seemed to offer something compelling and interesting. Kally Lloyd-Jones’s choreography is to be congratulated.

By far the most impressive part of this production was the final ten minutes. Prokofiev’s inspired request that Don Jerome accompany his singing by playing a complex accompaniment on musically tuned glasses caused the audience collectively to lean forward, stare and open their mouths as one, in astonishment. This was closely followed by a dramatic final chorus – the stage almost overflowing with the full cast singing and striking dramatic poses in the manner of Adam Ant and Diana Dors in the Prince Charming video of blessed memory. It was a glorious end to a production which, notwithstanding some fine singing, had been troubled from the beginning. It is probably better to save the best until last. However, it had been a long and uneven journey to get to the place where we eventually arrived.

Scottish Opera’s collaborations with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland are an interesting and compelling idea, exposing the Conservatoire’s students to the pressures and rigours of a professional production. Though in this case, the whole was less than the sum of its parts it is to be hoped that these collaborations continue long into the future.

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