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.

The first scene, Mad For It, turns out to be an encounter between a young couple who have just become engaged. The pub is located close by an early shopping arcade where Glasgow’s jewellers congregate. The young couple come up from the arcade where they have just bought a wedding ring to toast their future, as many have done before them. The Albanian soprano Miranda Sinani’s Bride-to-Be had a voice that stopped every conversation in the bar when she entered. Fine and clear, hers was the first indication of the intensity of the experience which was going to unfold. Her intended Husband-to-Be, the Scottish baritone Douglas Nairne, was waiting for her at the bar – keen to order two pints, only to acquiesce to her cry for champagne by ordering “two fizzy wines”. Young love suddenly rubs up against reality as the couple are interrupted by a Glasgow drunk. His tale of unhappiness leads him to leave a wedding ring on the bar. The young couple decide to take it and get their money back for the one that they had previously bought.

During this episode, the orchestration gradually built out from the sound of the singing glasses. A violin and a cello wind themselves around the ringing chord which is enhanced with an accordion and gradually, a rhythm is introduced with the tinkling of a toy piano.

Upstairs in the restaurant, the second scene Chopin’s Ghosts was by far the most emotional of the afternoon. This is a monologue sung by one soprano voice – Shuna Scott Sendall. She is a former manageress of the bar who fell in love with Chopin when he was briefly in Glasgow. Apparently she married a bar-room pianist on the rebound and has never been happy with him since. At one end of the room the pianist plays. At the other, she tells her story. The sheer power of this lyrical lament for a love that might have been and a love that never happened was spine tingling. (Apart from anything else, the audience in this promenade production were always right with the characters singing – one simply isn’t used to being so close to such powerful voices). The pianist remains impassive as the Manageress accuses him but he continues to play, in dialogue with a harp player sitting in the corner of the room. It is a mesmerising triangle. During all this, the Manageress gradually divests herself of many strings of pearls which she had arrived adorned in. The pearls are all dropped into a large glass on top of the upright piano as though she is paying heavily for her mistake years ago in taking up with the wrong pianist. This dark striptease perfectly matched the singing which was hopelessly sad and longing for some kind of erotic answer which never came. At the end, one last pearl was dropped into the glass with a jangle from the harp and though the Manageress was standing completely clothed, it felt as though she had given so many of her emotions that she was naked before us all. This was utterly spellbinding and it was worth seeing the opera for this scene alone.

A spoken monologue from the Landlady (Louise Montgomery) then entertained and distracted the audience whilst members of the company rearranged themselves in the building. Moving along to the Snug, we get the story (Country Song) of a couple of mates who have come into the pub with a coffin to toast their recently departed friend. Unable to get him up the stairs, they remove the corpse (looking suspiciously like composer Gareth Williams) and prop it up on the bar whilst they drink and blether. The three musicians who accompanied this section were behind the bar whilst Miranda Sinani entertained us as the jukebox, singing the deceased’s favourite Country Song whilst his friends wonder why he has gone before they have.

Then back to the restaurant for a duet in a section called Charm that has just been added to the project. Here the two male singers became the serial killer Peter Manuel (known to have drunk at Sloans and subsequently hanged) and the father of one of his victims. Douglas Nairne’s voice was the most conversational of the four singers involved in the project. His baritone needed to be listened to a little more carefully than the others in order to pick out the words in an acoustic which inevitably somewhat variable. Tenor Alistair Digges’ voice, like the two female singers, was far more forceful. This scene was the only one in which the energy levels seemed to droop a little. This has been recently added and it might be that a little more attention to the dramatic content would be useful, as it was not always entirely obvious what was going on.

The final section – Young Love – saw the audience, now seated around the ballroom on the top floor of the pub, cast as the guests at the wedding reception of the couple we had met in the first scene. All the voices were set against one another in a standoff when the drunk from that first scene turns up, now sober and reformed, with his Glasgow missus who wants her ring back. Moving around the ballroom, weaving in and out of the tables at which the audience were sitting, a resolution is worked out which sees the ring being handed back and a final chorus involving all voices singing together for the first time.

Gareth Williams’ score is modern yet melodic. There are snatches of tunes which stick in the mind and powerful rhythmic pulses that linger in the memory. The libretto by David Brock is funny and as they say round here, couthy. James Robert Carson’s direction is faultless.

The Sloans Project is a fantastic ghost story, bringing to life characters from a building which has seen more than its fair share of Glasgow drama through the years. Whether this hitherto site-specific piece can translate to other venues remains to be seen. In its original setting, the experience is electric. It is musically coherent and full of stories which are highly charged with laughter and sadness. It deserves to do well anywhere.

Speak Your Mind