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:
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Review – Ariadne auf Naxos – Scottish Opera

Scottish Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos is an odd combination of bawdy romp and serious opera – as the composer intended. Strauss could not have hoped for better singers than Scottish Opera have assembled for this co-production with Opera Holland Park. However, seriously flawed orchestral playing marred an otherwise interesting production.

Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange beast from the start. It is neither a conventional love story nor a conventional tragedy. The first half of the piece, the Prologue, sees two rival troupes of performers turn up at a country house where they have been engaged to put on their shows for the entertainment of a bigwig. Following a lot of banter between the high culture opera troupe and, in this production, a lowbrow burlesque ensemble, the bigwig decides that he would like both groups to perform their shows together. The resulting performance forms the second half of the evening after the interval. This rather clever conceit sounds as though it will result in the operatic equivalent of Noises Off but the resultant muddle is never quite as funny as one might hope.

The desire to make people laugh may be responsible for the decision by director, Anthony McDonald to have the bickering of the first half sung in English and the second, operatic half in German. This doesn’t quite come off. It isn’t particularly funny in either language. Much more assured though was his playing around with the gender of one of the characters. The role of the Composer is usually a trouser role – a female singer playing a man’s part. In this production, the Composer is a female singer presenting as a woman. This just feels like common sense. However, the added twist is that the Composer is destined to fall in love with burlesque thesp Zerbinetta. The addition of lingering lesbian kisses to the opera did start to make the characters more interesting than they otherwise might seem.

So much for the flimsy plot – what about the singing? Here there is much to praise. This was a tight collection of perfectly matched singers. Stealing the show in every sense was Jennifer France as Zerbinetta. Her long aria in the second half of the evening was fabulously ethereal. Well, not just ethereal but ethereally sung whilst performing a delicious striptease. It felt as though everyone in the theatre was on the edges of their seats as she transformed from coquettish black tie evening drag into a kind of camp Wonder Woman figure complete with feathers, on a swing that appeared from no-where. This was powerfully directed and astonishingly performed.

Mardi Byers, as Ariadne also sang extremely well. However, it remains the case that the burlesque side of the plot made a lot more sense than the Ariadne opera-within-an-opera was ever going to do.

All in all, there was nothing to complain about in terms of the singing. However, what was happening in the pit was far less secure. For once there were no problems of balance. There were however, huge problems of intonation, particularly amongst the woodwind section. The orchestra at Scottish Opera productions sometimes feels as though it is under-rehearsed on opening nights. On this occasion one sometimes started to wonder whether they had in fact met up before the production.

The orchestral playing simply wasn’t a match for the singing. There’s no point gathering such an esteemed group of singers together if they are not matched by better instrumental playing than was heard at this performance. Conductor, Brad Cohen presided over playing that simply felt scruffy.

Ariadne auf Naxos is an odd piece of work and is itself very much a mixed bag. So was this production. There was lots to like but it was only good in parts. The parts that were good were exquisite. In the end, it was all worth it for the striptease.
Rating: ★★★☆☆
This review was first published by Scene Alba Magazine.