Rigoletto Review – Scottish Opera 18 October 2018

Scottish Opera has chosen to begin its season of main stage operas this year with a revival – the production of Director Matthew Richardson’s Rigoletto which was first seen in 2011.

If anything the passage of time makes both the opera itself and this particular production all the more relevant. This is a piece that has #metoo written all over it and this production very successfully illuminates and condemns a world of male violence and privilege.

This always was a stylish show too. There is much to like about Jon Morrell’s design and the whole thing is fabulously lit throughout by Tony Rabbit. Significant parts of the action are played before strong sidelights which cast enormous shadows and it very cleverly begins to seem as though the shadows behind the characters are where the real business lies.

So far, so dark and that fits perfectly with the plot, but what was it like? Well, there is much to appreciate and there is no doubt that this is an enjoyable night. I happened to take a friend who had never been to an opera before and this is perfect first opera territory. The story is told clearly and with some elegance. The music is glorious and of course, you come out singing that tune, having been made very much aware that despite it appearing in TV advertisements and as background music everywhere, La Donna e mobile is as nasty a piece of misogyny as you will find in any repertoire.

However, there is a problem with this outing of this production and it is a simple one. Anyone who remembers seeing it in 2011 may well remember that the singing was simply better than the singing this time around.

Aris Argiris in the title role, we were informed before the curtain went up, was suffering from a cold. Certainly, that did not seem to have any effect on the power of his voice. However, its strength worked much better expressing Rigoletto’s rage than his tenderness. His acting is very fine and he dominated the stage. His Rigoletto very clearly bullies his daughter, as he is being bullied by members of the Duke’s court.  Lina Johnson gives a very touching portrayal of Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter though their duets lacked a little in emotional depth. Alas, the problem with Adam Smith’s Duke of Matua was that he had the apect more of a student portraying a duke than a duke dressing up to win the affections of Gilda as a student. He was delightful but I’d have believed him more if we’d seen more much menace.

The high vocal point in the whole production was the quartet Bella figlia dell’amore involving, Argiris, Smith, Johnson and Sioned Gwen Davies as Maddelena. This was a delight. It was also beautifully accompanied. Rumon Gamba kept the orchestra firmly in order throughout and tended towards the tender, which suited the singing completely.

The all-male chorus sing beautifully, look menacing and do obscene things with female mannequins. One could scarcely ask for more.

There is much to like and respect in this production. The story is told with grace, simplicity and style. Musically it is lovely, though excellence, sadly, eludes it.

This review appeared first in the pages of Scene Alba.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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: