Scottish Opera has had its ups and downs over the recent years, and is still underfunded, but to its credit it has always been committed to touring small scale opera to many parts of Scotland. Its latest programme begins tonight in the excellent Howden Park Centre in Livingstone, and is going to tour to fourteen towns and villages across Scotland, ending on March 10th. It is called Opera Highlights, and with four singers and a piano you might think you are just going to get a “park and bark” recital of operatic lollipops. Instead, with the aid of a few props, brilliant stage design, a script by director and designer, Jack Furness, and a fine choice of music by Derek Clark, we get a total operatic experience, and one that delights the large crowd in Livingstone.
The dramatic concept is that we are on tour with a small scale opera company, with two stage managers Henrietta and Brian, who are in a relationship, putting on a show—“another day, another bloody show”—with a pair of “stars”, Sophia and Petrarch, who are also in a relationship, but are constantly bickering. Aided by a very funny script, a few props, and some superb singing by all four of the cast, they transport us into the world of opera: a magic world where anything can happen, but above all where the music is supreme!
The first half of the programme is indeed operatic lollipops, with arias from The Barber of Seville, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro, but these are linked together with a clever script. Some lesser known works follow, including new work from Scottish Opera’s resident composer, Samuel Bordoli. It ends with some classics from L‘incoronazione di Poppea, La bohème and The Pearlfishers. All four singers are good actors as well as singers. They milk the humour of the script mercilessly, but can also quickly slip into character, and convince us of the tragedy of the opera. As one audience member puts it during the interval, “I never thought opera was sexy until now!”
In the second half, we are treated to more diverse and more reflective arias, including some interesting new work from Bordoli, plus works from Tchaikovsky, Barber, Offenbach and Zeller. The second half ends with a delightful operatic romp, beginning with Bernstein’s Oh, Happy We, from Candide, and ending with two works by Sullivan, including A Regular Royal Queen, and a terrific encore of Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington, given by a trio of singers while the soprano vainly attempts to show the seriousness of opera. They show that opera can encompass all human emotions, but can also be fun, something the Livingstone audience fully gets, judging by the great ovation the company get at the end.
Finally, the performers. All are excellent, but a special mention goes to Máire Flavin, a superb Irish soprano who acts and sings with great meaning, and to Catherine Backhouse, the mezzo, a former chorister at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh, who is sure to be a star in the future. The men are also very good. Benjamin Lewis, a fine and handsome baritone, adds great comic acting to his excellent singing, and finally, William Morgan, the tenor, is a very funny actor as well as a sweet tenor, although he is a little thin when he pushes his voice. They are superbly accompanied by pianist, Patrick Milne, whose fiery playing makes an orchestra unnecessary!
This is one of the best evenings of opera in recent months. Scottish Opera have a hit on their hands, and as this is the first night, it will surely only get better as it travels around Scotland. Don’t miss it if it comes to a town near you. Full details of the tour are available on the Scottish Operas website here.