Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh
***** (5 stars)
It felt very strange to be sitting in a virtually full Brunton Theatre on Thursday night with people sitting all round me [mostly grey-haired but a fair sprinkling of quite young people, and one tiny who felt obliged to give us a running commentary throughout, despite her parents’ best efforts to keep her quiet]. Masks were in evidence everywhere, and I didn’t feel at all at risk – but nonetheless it was very strange to be so close to people I didn’t know, after eighteen plus months of keeping everyone quite literally at arm’s length.
Scottish Opera’s head of music, Derek Clark, has done another brilliant job of selecting pieces that suit the strengths of his singers and weaving what might seem a random assembly of opera excerpts into a narrative. This season’s offering is a meditation on relationships, which may start with the euphoria of first love but are unlikely to stay that way for very long…
Our quartet of singers began with a joyful double wedding with properly coupled soprano/ tenor, and mezzo/ baritone singing Over the dark blue waters from Weber’s Oberon. Mezzo Lea Shaw then serenaded the welcome shade of a tree with Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Serse, before baritone Alexey Gusov sang Don Giovanni’s Deh, vieni alla finestra – a wonderfully seductive aria delivered with such charisma that I’m surprised there wasn’t a fight to join him on stage…. Lea Shaw was suitably mesmerised, but encountered strong competition from soprano Meinir Wyn Roberts as Via resti servita from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro degenerated from polite hostility into a vicious cat fight. Tenor Glen Cunningham then tried to defuse the tension with the serenade À la voix d’un amant fidèle from Bizet’s Jolie Fille de Perth, an opera whose charming music deserves to be better-known.
Meinir Wyn Roberts sparkled in Ah! Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Juliet rejoices in the pleasures she thinks will come from her engagement to Paris: each time doubts cross her mind, she retreats into her joyful dream. Alexey Gusov and Lea Shaw looked back at past joys in O chudni slaskyi son! from Tchaikovsky’s little-known The Maid of Orleans; and then Glen Cunningham as Fenton serenaded his love Anne Page with Nicolai’s Horch, die Lerche Singt im Hain from Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, an equally delightful but less well-known alternative to Verdi’s Falstaff.
Lea Roberts was riddled with doubts in Leonora’s O mio Fernando from Donizetti’s La Favorita – she has been the king’s mistress but now is allowed to marry her true love, Fernando – but will he want her when he knows her history? We returned to Bizet, as Meinir Wyn Roberts’ Micaela came to give Glen Cunningham’s Don Jose a kiss from his mother: he asked her to give him news of his mother back in their home village in Parle-moi de ma mere,seemingly oblivious to her baby bump, as he is already obsessed with the gypsy Carmen. Alexey Gusov’s attempt to convince Lisa that they could be happy together – Ya vas lyublyu from Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades – was equally in vain, as she was engrossed in her hopeless love for Hermann, who was himself obsessed by his doomed quest for the secret of ‘the three cards’.
Meinir Wyn Roberts then demonstrated her ability to hoodwink the opposite sex with Norina’s Quel guardo, il cavaliere… so anch’io la virtù magica from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale – is the fact that she’s preparing to fool an old man so that she can marry her young true love excuse enough? Tenor and baritone joined in serenading their loves with a duet from Julius Benedict’s The Lily of Killarne – The moon has raised her lamp above. This prompted their partners to join them in celebrating their revitalised loves with the champagne song from Johan Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, a fittingly effervescent piece with which to end the evening.
Our four singers had been warmly applauded throughout the evening, but this final applause was so loud, prolonged and joyful that it seemed as though they wouldn’t be allowed to give us their encore – a gentle quartet praying for sleep at midnight – a beautifully calm close to the feast of emotions we’d experienced in a beautifully-chosen programme showcasing the talents of four extremely talented young singers.
Meinir Wyn Roberts is making her debut with Scottish Opera, and I look forward to seeing her in future productions. Lea Shaw and Glen Cunningham are two of 2021-2’s Emerging Artists, so we’re sure to see them again in the coming year, while Alexey Gusov was a memorable Emerging Artist in 2018-19. Glen Cunningham’s quiet restrained style was slightly overshadowed by the other three’s full-throated outpourings, but then his gentle lyrical voice wasn’t given such show-stopping numbers to sing. The other three made the most of their opportunities to show what they could do, and I was particularly impressed with Lea Shaw’s versatility and dramatic ability. Meinir Wyn Roberts’ bubbly personality matches her high-flying voice – but the highlight of the evening for me was Alexey Gusov’s full-throated Russian singing – deeply seductive in Italian and virtually irresistible when singing in his native language.
All four singers gave us a delightful evening’s entertainment, all the more enjoyable for it’s being the first time for so many of us that we have been able to enjoy a pleasure we took for granted eighteen months ago. The audiences for the rest of this tour are in for a major treat, and I’m sure the applause will be as warm and heartfelt as it was in Musselburgh last Thursday night.
Scottish Opera,Opera Highlights,Scottish Tour Continues