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Archive for the ‘opera’ Category

There was a genuine air of excitement and anticipation on the opening night of David McVicar’s new co-production of The Rake’s Progress for Scottish Opera and Teatro Regio Torino.   McVicar had been telling the press that he had been simply bursting to direct this work, last performed by Scottish Opera in 1971 so his return to Glasgow was keenly anticipated.   This production marked a welcome return to Glasgow too for Sian Edwards who made her opera conducting debut as a last-minute stand in for an indisposed Simon Rattle for Scottish Opera’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny  in 1986.

Rake's Progress

Edgaras Montvidas as Tom Rakewell.
Rake's Progress. Photo: Mark Hamilton

The plot follows the famous series of paintings by William Hogarth depicting the spendthrift Tom Rakewell’s decline in the seedier side of London in the 1700s.  Tom is beguiled by Nick Shadow who persuades him to leave his beloved, Anne Truelove for more exciting times in the big smoke and we follow his eventful journey from brothel to Bedlam.

John MacFarlane designed a stripped back wooden set on which to set the drama, yet there was so much detail placed on it, it would be possible to see this production several times and still see new things.   A massive skull on the front stagecloth staring down into the pit set the scene, and there were a few clever touches like a giant children’s cardboard theatre to illustrate the story of Tom’s fictitious uncle and a remarkable Heath Robinson machine for making loaves out of stones.

McVicar conjured up a chorus of brilliantly individual characters who followed Tom on his journey bedecked in outrageous wigs and gaudy costumes.    In particular, the intricate set pieces in Mother Goose’s bright pink brothel (with Timorous Beastie-like wallpaper) and boisterous sale of Baba the Turk’s possessions were fabulously done, and stunningly lit by David Finn.

Lithuanian Edgaras  Montvidas was a magnificently strong Tom, the complete innocent who grows up fast and Steven Page, a dapper Nick Shadow.   The two were well matched, and in great voice.   Carolyn Sampson as Anne was a little lightweight in contrast to the men, but blew us away with her aria at the end of the first act.    Leah-Marian Jones gave a perfectly judged character role as the bearded Baba the Turk, silenced in mid flow by a large red cloth as one would a caged bird, and yet compassionate as she urged Anne to follow her truelove Tom.

The opera is stuffed full of fun, but has its very dark side, no moreso than when Tom tries to buy back his soul with a game of guess the card with Shadow.   The two voices battle it out with just a harpsichord in the pit, but even as Tom answers correctly, Shadow has the last word and strikes Rakewell mad.  During the evening, McVicar occasionally let his players stray to the edge of the orchestra pit, moving out of the action to deliver an apt aside to the audience, thus setting things up for the final moral Epilogue:  the more fun you have during the opera, the more powerful the message.

Rake's progress Scottish Opera

A Chorus of Individuals. Rake's Progress.
Photo: Mark Hamilton

Sian Edwards says that she discovered a way into the neo baroque music of the Rake’s Progress through Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, and in the space of two days it was wonderful to have been able to see both operas live in Glasgow.   The orchestra was on top form, the strings absolutely together on the staccato chords, the woodwind brought out from under the stage and placed on Edwards’ far left for extra brightness and the trumpets who were star turns.

This was an enjoyable evening, which more than lived up to its expectations and an important one which allowed everyone at Scottish Opera to really shine.

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Wonderful performance of the Rape of Lucretia in a studio space by RCS in Glasgow.

See my review on Bachtrack.

 

Rape of Lucretia

 

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Intermezzo is an opera based on the real life happenings in the relationship between Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline, characterised on stage as Robert and Christine Storch.     

Roland Wood, Anita Bader in Intermezzo

Roland Wood, Anita Bader in Intermezzo Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Maestro Robert takes on a long conducting stint in Vienna, leaving Christine in her country house with their eight year old son Franzl, and a retinue of staff.    On a tobogganing trip, Christine literally crashes into fellow  aristocrat Baron Lummer, and they strike up a friendship ……… until he asks her for money.   Christine opens a letter addressed to Robert, and finds a note from a Mieze Maier asking him to meet her at the opera, and afterwards in the bar.  Highly strung Christine  immediately considers divorce, but the letter turns out to have been sent to Strauss in error, as Mieze mistook his name for Kapellmeister Stroh.  Robert returns home to fix things and domestic harmony is restored eventually.  

This little performed opera is arranged in two acts, each of several scenes with interlude music continuing through the changes.  It is a massive challenge for a designer who has to not only depict rooms in the Storch’s country house, but also an Inn, Lodgings, The Prater in Vienna, a ski slope, and much more.   Designer Manfred Kaderk cleverly used Klimt’s The Kiss as a theme, with the Storches’ house decorated with gloriously over the top Klimt-kitsch wallpaper.  At the start of the opera, in a nice touch, the two figures in The Kiss separated, and were reunited only at the very end.   

The music is a wonderful sound scape of rich, passionate, and dissonant notes, and the Scottish Opera orchestra (complete with harmonium) under Francesco Corti tackled this difficult score with aplomb.   The intermezzos were particularly engrossing, adding so much to the work, and giving the whole a very cinematic feel.  

Roland Wood was an excellently robust Robert Storch, whether battling with Christine to get his belongings packed up for Vienna, playing cards with his friends the Councillors of Commerce and Justice, Kammersanger, Kapellmeister (all in fine voice), or returning home to sort out the domestic mess.    Bavarian Anita Bader did well with the huge role of Christine, but lacked the power needed to get across Corti’s forces going at full tilt in the pit.   It was a pity, because the much anticipated big finish was  somewhat underpowered.   Scot, Nicky Spence sang the smarmy-but-broke  Baron Lummer with conviction.

There were some nice touches from director Wolfgang Quetes:  the clear hierarchy of staff in the Storch household;  the card game scene which erupted into ribald laughter and drink after Robert left the room after being teased about his difficult wife;  Christine throwing a large bunch of red flowers onto the stage, yet within minutes, sitting doucely on her husband’s knee and feeding him toast.

Christine Storch is portrayed as a really difficult woman who is horrible to her staff.    Family joke or not, I was left wondering what the real Pauline Strauss made of this opera when it was performed in 1924.

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For seasoned opera goers, the phrase ‘Community Opera’ can conjure up all sorts of feelings – not all good.    These projects can sometimes be well-meaning,  worthy and just a bit dull unless you are taking part, or a parent of a young performer.

So it is a delight to report that the double bill of short community operas at the Glasgow Citizens was none of these things.   It was an absolutely  sparkling evening, as evidenced by the electric buzz in the foyer afterwards.

On the Rim of the World

On the Rim of the World - photo Citizens

On The Rim of the World by Orlando Gough was first on the bill, co-commissioned by all the main UK opera companies who have been performing it ‘in their own way’ ever since.    Glasgow’s turn drew on the well established Citizens Community Theatre together with 30 children from schools across the Gorbals also picked to take part.     Using the professional resources of the Citizens and Scottish Opera, and a visit from the Composer himself, this piece about children too awake for bedtime was worked up into a very special show.

With upbeat and singable music, we were taken on a journey into sleep with nightmare giant chickens, and a circus.    In a nice touch, the Dads were left at home coping with babies and the  lively children while the Mums got a night out.    

The stars of this show were the 50 strong ensemble who acted, danced and sang their hearts out.    With an able band in the pit, which included a saxophone and an accordion, there was so much to like in this wonderfully imaginative show.

Dr Ferret's Bad Medicine Roadshow

Dr Ferret's Bad Medicine Roadshow - photo Citizens.

The second opera, Dr Ferret’s Bad Medicine Show written by Stephen Deazley was commissioned by Scottish Opera to showcase the talents of  the young group of under 22s they have been quietly working with for the past few years.      Based on Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, we were told the much-loved stories  about Henry King and the string, Jim and the lion, George’s dangerous balloon and Matilda’s lies.   

The music was light and catchy with lots of singing for everyone.   Like the first piece, singing, and stagecraft were spot on.      Scottish Opera’s orchestra played the intriguing score with relish.   There was a massive array of percussion set out along the side wall, and watching Jay Allen get round it all was a show in itself.    This charming opera deserves to be performed again for a wider audience.

Most importantly, apart from being real fun for performers and listeners, this demonstrated how two national professional companies can work together, and can involve performers from the wider community to produce something very special.      Coming soon after Scottish Opera’s collaboration with RSAMD on The Cunning Little Vixen, this can only be good for future arts in Scotland.

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Cunning Little VixenThe teaming up of RSAMD’s best students with Scottish Opera has now become a much-anticipated annual event:     it is a showcase of how a national opera company can work together with a national music conservatoire to provide immensely valuable experience, and a chance for the youngsters to work right alongside the professionals on stage, off stage and in the pit.

This year, the combined forces chose to revive David Poutney’s much-loved 1980’s WNO/SO joint production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, not seen in Glasgow since 1997.    Always a charming piece, Poutney’s production was a landmark of its time, and the undulating forest design by Maria Bjornson adds much to the magic of the musical soundscape.

This year, for the first time, Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists were added into the mix, as were pupils from Scottish Ballet.    To get the most value for the exercise, the main singing parts were double-cast, with a performance apiece in Glasgow and Edinburgh.   

The opera is on one level about the forest and its animals, and we follow the story of Vixen Sharp-Ears, taken back to the Forester’s home as a pet cub, but who quickly shows her true character by killing his hens and escaping.     She meets a mate, and they have playful cubs, but though she is shot and killed by the Poacher, it is clear that life continues in the forest year on year.  

And year on year, this opera is about old age, and loves which might have been:    the Schoolmaster misses his chance to marry Ternyka as his friend the Poacher beats him to it, and the Forester sings about old age and the shot vixen.   In the final moments, a frog jumps onto his lap, and reminds him that he is the grandson of the frog who did the same thing when he first met Sharp-Ears.

Janacek was 70 years old when wrote the Cunning Little Vixen and deep  in unrequited love with the much younger (and married) Kamila Stösslová, making the Forester’s final song all the more poignant.

Seen on its second night in Glasgow, the night belonged to Michel de Souza, Scottish Opera Emerging Artist who sang a wonderful Forester, and he was well matched by opera student Natalie Montakhab’s vivacious vixen who put in a simply  thrilling performance.      But that is not to detract from the large cast of singers and dancers whose enthusiasm  made this a memorable evening.

And finally, a special mention to Emily Chappell for the charming programme illustrations.

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In The Penal Colony

New opera at the Traverse is becoming an annual exciting date to not to miss.    Music Theatre Wales made a return visit with In the Penal Colony by Philip Glass after their successful presentation of Letters of  Love Betrayed in 2009.    Before that, Lyall Creswell’s Good Angel, Bad Angel set a very high standard.   And in between, the Hebrides Ensemble performed The Martyrdom of St Magnus before taking it to Kirkwall Cathedral for the Orkney Festival.     The popular success of the Five:15 project from Scottish Opera demonstrates a healthy appetite for new chamber opera, and the Traverse had a waiting list for tickets for this one night only show.  
 
In the Penal Colony is based on a short story by Franz Kafka, with libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer and music by Philip Glass.   The opera is 10 years old, but this tour was its first outing in the UK.      The setting was minimalist:   two singers, one actor and a string quartet (with added double bass) from Scottish Opera’s orchestra.    The stage had a table, a chair and a ladder.    
In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony - Photo, Clive Barda

The setting is a penal colony, with capital punishment in the hands of The  Officer, intent on doing things very traditionally and  superbly sung and acted by Omar Ebrahim.     The Condemned Man was expressively played by silent actor Gerald Tyler.    The third character was The Visitor, sung by Michael Bennett  sent to observe proceedings.   
The Officer shows the Visitor his brutal machine, and it becomes apparent that the killing takes  several hours – plenty long enough for a condemned man to see the error of his ways before he is finally dispatched.    The Visitor is appalled, and as it dawns on the Officer that the rest of the world has in fact moved on from the middle ages, there is only one course of action left – to turn himself over to the machine.

Glass’s music is based on repetitive but ever-changing motifs, and the musicians took up the challenge with clear relish.    However, it tended to get a bit samey after a while, and there were sudden halts where everyone turned a page, and there was a different lighting cue, which I felt spoilt the action.     The amplification of both the players and singers, which although reasonably unobtrusive, was perhaps not needed, particularly as the radio mikes were having a few buzzy problems.

I was just not sure this story worked well as opera.     There were times when there was not enough happening on stage.   Certainly, everyone turned in good performances, but the result was ultimately less than the sum of its parts, which was a little disappointing.

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It has been a rich year in the arts in Scotland, although the  exceptional has remained elusive.

23 plays seen.    In Perth, the year kicked off with an excellent adaptation of Tam O Shanter, and took in the tour of Be Near Me.    With a good cast, Silver Darlings promised much but never quite produced a sum of its parts, which was a disappointment.       In Glasgow, at the Citizens, we enjoyed Ghosts, and a pre-Edinburgh festival production of a Rona Munro’s new play The Last Witch.   At the Tron, we liked That Face, and White Tea.    In Edinburgh, Gregory Burke’s latest play Hoors was not a patch on Black Watch, or Gagarin Way, but we liked The Dark Things a lot.     National Theatre of Scotland’s big autumn production of House of Bernara Alba was interesting, but just did not quite work.   For consistently good theatre in Scotland, Dundee Rep is punching way above its weight exemplified by a really excellent Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? which gets my best of the year vote.     There was also a very good production of The Elephant Man, directed by Jemima Levick  – the incoming assistant director, who also directed a touring production of Baby Baby (seen at Macrobert), which was enjoyable, but had rather weak material.   Dundee also put on a really special version of  A Christmas Carol.   Nationally, we enjoyed Ken Stott in a View from the Bridge when it came to Glasgow, Theatre de Complicite’s Shun Kin at the Barbican in London, and Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic.       We missed Sub Rosa, at the Citizens which was a pity.   

9 Operas.    RSAMD opera school continued to entertain with The Love of Three Oranges and the Tales of Hoffman.   Scottish Opera produced another set of five fifteen minute operas at Oran Mor, and will have a third set in May 2010.    Main house, Scottish Opera has had a good season with solid productions of Cosi, Manon, the Elixir of Love, and the Italian Girl in Algiers.    Concert performances of operas don’t do it for me usually, but there was a one performance only of I Puritani at Glasgow City Hall, which was outstanding.    We enjoyed the new opera Letters of a Love Betrayed which had one performance at The Traverse.

We have been to quite a few Youth Orchestra Concerts this year, which we have enjoyed.   The Scottish Ensemble continue to tour with well thought out programmes and general excellence.   In Perth, we heard Theatre of Voices with Bang on a Can playing Steve Reich pieces and David Lang’s co-comissioned (Perth Concert Hall with Carnegie Hall in New York) Little Match Girl Passion.     But outstanding performance of 2009  was actually caught on holiday in Krakow where the Wroclaw Symphony Orchestra played a stunning Mahler 9.

We did not get to much by way of dance this year, but enjoyed Michael Marra and Frank McConnell’s Wee Home from Home – first performed 20 years ago , and revived by original director Gerry Mulgrew with new designs by Karen Tennant.

2009 was a memorable year for film, and we liked the genuinely unusual Slumdog Millionaire, the quirky 35 Shots of Rum, Katalin Varga’s smouldering revenge, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, Cannes winner White Ribbon, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, and even Opera on the big screenCosi fan Tutti (Salzberg festival production).      I was less sure about Moon, the sci-fi film from Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son).   An Education and Let The Right One In were special highlights.

We visted the Anish Kapoor exhibition in London – great dods of bright red wax being fired out of a cannon every 20 minutes  into a corner of a room – lots of other stuff too.   Highly entertaining.

2010 has some interesting things ‘coming soon’, and the New Year’s resolution is to write about them here in more detail.

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