Don Giovanni – Scottish Opera

It is difficult to know why Scottish Opera have revived Thomas Allan’s production of Don Giovanni, which they first presented in 2013. It wasn’t exciting then and isn’t exciting now.

The curtain goes up to reveal a gauze that will remain in place to obscure the first scenes. Clouds can be seen scudding across it and eventually we get to glimpse Simon Higlett’s moody design.

The clouds had been going for quite a while though and were the perfect visual metaphor for the intonation problems that the strings were having during the overture. This lack of musical clarity continued throughout the first few scenes too. This was particularly noticeable during the initial trios. Herr Mozart doesn’t give much room for manoeuvre here – the mirroring of Leporello’s vocal part in the woodwind needs to be precise and crisp. In the event, it highlighted the fact that pit and stage were just a little out of kilter.

The trouble with obscuring the audience’s view is that the audience must then struggle to work out what it can see. A red light outside a building was much later revealed to be a votive candle sitting in front of a religious statue. Through the gauze though, it just looked like a red light, leading to the surprising possibility that the Commendatore was running a brothel. And why not, after all? If the whole production can be shifted to Venice for no apparent reason, why shouldn’t we begin outside a house of ill repute?

Vocally, the most interesting voices on the stage were the women. Hye-Youn Lee’s Donna Anna was clear and true, Kitty Whately’s Donna Elvira was sensational and Lea Shaw’s Zerlina was gorgeously sweet and pure. As one of Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists she more than held her own on the stage.

The essence of Don Giovanni is surely that delicious experience of falling in love with a man one knows to be trouble. Roland Wood never quite took us to that place. Why should we love him? Why should we hate him? Like much else in the production, this wasn’t entirely clear.

The audience’s tentative ripple of applause which followed Zachary Altman’s catalogue aria was perfectly judged. However, everyone knows this should be a showstopper.

The set changes remain noisy and clunky but there’s an attempt to cover up the noise with some thunder. The set is noisier than the thunder though and in the first half we get lightning without thunder and in the second, thunder without lightning -the perfect metaphor for the show.

Oddly, a couple of non-singing nuns with no faces keep turning up. They look marvellous and their headgear seems to suggest that they are Catherine Labouré sisters. What they were up to in Venice though is another puzzle.

Interestingly, Scottish Opera announced next year’s season on the same day as this performance and rather oddly proclaimed that this, the final main stage production of this year is also being regarded as the first production of next year’s season. It is almost as though the marketing department had a meeting to try to work out how to cover up how rare Scottish Opera’s main stage shows are becoming, particularly for those outside the Central Belt.

Things have moved on quite a lot since this production was first staged.

The #metoo movement is acknowledged in the programme but this must demand fresh reappraisals of the Don’s relationship with women on the stage.

The pandemic itself has taken such a toll on the performing arts that it is a genuine joy for people to be back in the theatre encountering full stage opera performances. However, just one of the shadows of the pandemic for Scottish Opera is that its audience and its potential audience has had a very great many opportunities over the last couple of years to encounter genuinely exciting opera productions from all over the world in digital form.

Some things work in this production. The moody lighting, the fabulous hats, the glorious frocks and the most beautiful music in the world are all there.

But something else isn’t.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This review was first published by the award winning Scene Alba magazine.

Review: Nixon in China – Scottish Opera

Madame Mao

Hye-Youn Lee as Madame Mao. Photograph: James Glossop

Do we make history or does it make us?

Scottish Opera’s co-production of Nixon in China is a timely and intelligent piece that asks questions about things that many in the audience will remember yet provides no easy answers. This is not a simple morality tale, nor a love story, nor a tragedy. It is an opportunity for every audience member to reflect on the swirling currents of modern political life. It is a piece that is at once about how strange the past seems to be and how even stranger, the present.

The dominant theme in John Fulljames’s production is looking back. The whole story is told as a retrospective study of documents within an archive storage facility. Everything is either memory or historical record.

This is an innovative staging making clever use of video throughout. Some of this is simply projected pictures. More interestingly though, much is seen in the form of layers of documents laid down under a digital vizualiser on a desk on the stage.

The bold scoring of the arrival of the plane in China (Landing of the Spirit of ’76) is matched with a particularly fabulous kaleidoscope of projected images on stage.

Joana Caneiro’s conducting shows some restraint throughout the evening. Both orchestra and singers seem a little underpowered. There was no trouble with balance between the pit and the stage but as the action and the theatre heated up, the sound of the fans on the large digital projector in the auditorium were more of a distraction than they should have been.

None of this took away from the sheer excitement of the score. This is a phenomenal musical work. The retrospective mood on the stage perfectly matches the retrospective mood of much of the music, referencing, Wagner, Stravinsky, dance tunes and so forth. This is a production which also emphasises that though radical in some ways, the piece is fundamentally rooted in an operatic tradition. The various set pieces between the six characters, the three female secretaries singing in a semi-chorus, the quotes from other musical works and librettist Alice Goodman’s teasing playfulness with rhyming couplets all emphasise that this is a piece that refreshes a tradition that we already know well.

The singing honours have to be awarded to the two female principals. The arrival of Hye-Youn Lee as Madame Mao in the second act was brilliantly exciting. The role demands an agile coloratura soprano and Hye-Youn Lee did not disappoint. Julia Sporsén’s portrayal of Pat Nixon was also astonishing and she completely dominated Act II. Indeed, there was the creeping realisation that there’s an ambiguity in the title of the work. Which Nixon are we celebrating coming to China – Richard or Pat? John Fulljames missed a trick in not bringing Ms Sporsén on last to receive the audience’s appreciation at the end of the evening to make the point that the piece is largely about Pat Nixon rather than her tricky husband. This was particularly seen throughout the revolutionary ballet when the action was entirely focused on Pat. Throughout everything her voice and hair were coiffed to perfection. She looked and sounded impeccable.

Amongst the men, Eric Greene’s Richard Nixon was interesting and even vulnerable and Nicholas Lester’s final valediction as Chou En-lai the Premier of China moving, elegiac and world-weary.

As the final archive box was put away with its characters in it, one felt thankful that this work had been brought out of storage by those intelligent enough to make it compelling and interesting. In a world still functionally unable to make sense of the relationship between power and the people this was a production that seemed necessary. I came out at the end of the evening feeling that I understood the world better than I did before. I also came out feeling that the world was also more perplexing than it seemed earlier in the evening.

Both things can be true.


Rating: ★★★★☆

This review was published first by Scene Alba.