Pagliacci – Scottish Opera ****

Paisley Opera House (aka a tent on Seedhill Playing Fields in Paisley)

Scottish Opera’s summer show in Paisley is a completely immersive bundle of fun that manages to be innovative and hugely entertaining.

It isn’t difficult to see where the idea of putting this show on in a big tent comes from. Pagliacci (The Clowns) is all about a troop of performing players coming to town. It just happened that this troop had turned up in Paisley and were putting on a show for a local gala day – the Sma’ Shot festivities.

There was a strong sense of local festival as soon as one entered the tent, with a range of sideshows – a magician, fortune teller and a real Punch and Judy show alongside games like Pin The Tail on the Donkey. It was a brave decision on the part of Scottish Opera to have an actual donkey wandering around too, given the recent debacle of the Eugene Onegin’s horse. However, no-one disgraced themselves and a good time was had by all, not least the three people who won the raffle and got to conduct the orchestra in some well-known operatic overtures.

By the time the singing started, it felt as though the show had been going on for some time.

With all the fun of the fair going on all around, the danger was that the singing might not matter that much. Fortunately this was a strong cast and in fact the singing was excellent. Particular praise must go to Ronald Samm for his utterly superb Vesti la guibba that ended the first act. The fact that he was surrounded at close quarters by the audience, who were invited to move about the tent to wherever the action was, didn’t distract him from an astonishing display of heartbroken anguish.

A huge chorus of both amateur and professional singers were mingling with the audience throughout most of the production and it was genuinely thrilling for the singing and the action to break out all around you as you tried, generally unsuccessfully, to work out what might happen next. High points included the entrance procession of the players and the sudden, stunning reveal of the stage (made out of a road-truck) for them to play on in the second half.

It is to the director, Bill Bankes-Jones’s credit that the pitiful tragedy of scorned love was perfectly balanced with the comedy and high jinks of a show that was hell bent on blowing away even the most jaded cynicism. By the end of the evening, what had we witnessed? A fun filled tragedy? A comedy beset by human misery? Both, surely, and more.

One hour 40 minutes is a bit long for a promenade performance, particularly as the audience didn’t move about quite as much as I suspect they were expected to do on what was a very hot July evening. However, the standing about all felt well worth it for a surprise summer hit.

The Orchestra of Scottish Opera were about the only ones who got to sit down all night and, apart from some repeated split notes in the brass section were on generally good form under Stuart Stratford.

All in all it seems like a shame that this show will play for a run of just three performances. It was an enormous effort for a relatively small audience and could easily have sustained a longer run.

The troop of performing players that rolled up into Paisley done good.

Done very good indeed.

Rating: ★★★★☆

This review first appeared at Scene Alba: