Anthropocene – Scottish Opera – Review

It is a joy that Scottish Opera have once again commissioned a significant new work and included it in their main stage programme and it is unsurprising that they have turned once again to librettist Louise Welsh and composer Stuart MacRae. Their last collaboration The Devil Inside was a brilliant hit in 2016.

This production once again looks straight into the face of all that is uncanny and disturbing and makes for an interesting though never comforting evening.

A ship gets stuck in the ice off Greenland. It contains a rich entrepreneur and his daughter, a couple of scientists, a journalist and a couple of crew members. They get trapped due to the actions of one of the scientists who has discovered a body frozen in the ice – a body which turns out, somehow, to still be alive. This extraordinary part of the plot isn’t explored nearly as much as one would like. Though we later discover the strange survivor to have once been the victim of a cult of blood-sacrifice, the other characters seem curiously uninterested in her story other than that it might make some of them rich and famous.

Throughout the whole opera, MacRae’s score glistens with icy melodrama – the pit seeming to become the very ice that traps the ship above it. So much does the orchestra creak and moan and shimmer throughout the whole evening that the frozen sea itself seems to have become another character in the drama.

There was much strong singing, but it would be unfair not to single out Jennifer France singing the part of Ice – the curiously resurrected body. Her singing seemed to be what the word ethereal was coined to describe.

This is a piece with particularly strong music for the female voice and a prolonged section for the trio of the three female singers in the second half of the evening was stunning.

Musically, things are considerably stronger than the plot and there is a curious disjuncture between the first half of the evening and the second. It is as though the creative team were somehow subconsciously rewriting The Flying Dutchman for the first half and then when they realised what they were doing, decided to have a go at rewriting Parsifal for the second.

Without giving away too many of the plot twists, this is a salvation story with no salvation. But therein lies its problem – this is a piece which is all too aware of its own conceit and takes us nowhere new. There are resonances here with the post-Christendom nihilism of some of Flannery O’Conner’s characters but O’Conner tells her stories with considerably more affection for the human soul.

A number of familiar operatic clichés make appearances. Two men roll around the stage fighting one another over the affections of a woman just before the interval – though their affections come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. Ultimately, there is “…no blessing, no words of comfort” as Ice sings at the very end. The trouble is, we already knew that and we end the evening having been exposed more to concept than story.

It is almost guaranteed that one will come out of a Welsh and Macrae opera talking about what it all meant and even a day later, I find myself still curiously unsure whether my opinion of it has finally settled. All I can remember looking back is being surrounded by ice and that everything around us is breaking up and is bitter cold.

This is opera to chill you to the marrow but it neither promises nor delivers solace.

In that, it is very much a piece of our times.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This review appeared first in Scene Alba.


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: ★★★☆☆