Scottish Opera Touring Company – Opera Highlights
**** (4 stars)
Where do Scottish Opera find all these tall, dark, handsome, talented and engaging baritones?? This year the lucky audiences on the latest Opera Highlights tour will have the pleasure of getting to know the many sides of Dan Shelvey – hinted at in his appearance as Luiz in The Gondoliers last year, but allowed full rein in this wide-ranging programme.
This is not to decry the other three singers! Shengzhi Ren is a Chinese tenor who is going to go far – his beautifully produced voice is rich and round, and he has an expressive face and a good grasp of comic timing. Margo Asane, a mezzo from France, was equally at home in trousers or a skirt, her gorgeously liquid voice richly expressive in French, Italian and English as she switched effortlessly from comedy to tragedy or romance. Not content with that, she played both guitar and violin to accompany others’ arias…
Scottish soprano Monica McGhee completed this versatile quartet: I found her voice a little more edgy than the others’, and was at times more aware of her acting rather than inhabiting her roles – but she had, in the main, more ‘standard’ soprano roles, which don’t necessarily give the same scope for infusing personality into them: you have to look pretty and appealing, but not necessarily show great strength of character! She made a good job of Cleopatra’s lament piangerò la sorte mia, but to me lacked a little vengeful energy in the central section when she is promising to haunt her brother and make his life a misery once she is dead. The rest of the audience obviously didn’t share my reservations, and applauded her vigorously!
The evening’s programme was, as ever, a superb mix of the familiar and the less well-known, and gave the quartet of singers the chance to shine on their own and combine with others in various ensembles. I was particularly delighted with the trio pria di partir, o Dio from Mozart’s Idomeneo, one of my favourite operas, and relished the subdued misery of When a wooer goes a-wooing from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard.
We also had a rare treat – a world première! Lucie Treacher has long been a fan of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and “always wanted to set her vivid language to music” – and so we heard a quartet weaving together sights, sounds and emotions from four of the novel’s characters in a melodic and lyrical piece which was very well received.
As ever, there is some sort of story weaving the arias into a loose narrative: this season, the narrative was simple and direct, and expertly outlined for us in rhyming couplets. The baritone is pining for the soprano, but thinks she has gone off with the besotted tenor and is heartbroken. All is not lost, however, and thanks to the mezzo there is a happy ending.
One of the most delightful things I know is to see talented musicians let their hair down at the end of a concert – I remember being enthralled by Tasmin Little’s renditions of Gershwin after a superb evening of Delius… Our quartet had a field day with music from the operettas of Emmerich Kàlmàn, Johann Strauss II and Sigmund Romberg. I was particularly delighted with a duet version of the tenor serenade from The Student Prince, but somewhat less thrilled with the ultra-patriotic marching songs which closed the show – glorifying war and exhorting young men to go and be killed isn’t my idea of a good time – but the audience loved it.
And all was forgiven when this wonderful quartet came back to give us the incomparable Noël Coward’s Nina [from Argentina] – witty, complex, hysterically funny, and graphically acted for an audience who would have surged to their feet in a standing ovation were their seats not so closely packed together that anything but the most decorous movement was an impossibility.
It was a delight to have such a fun ending to an immensely satisfying evening, and to see a packed house saluting and enjoying these young singers’ talents. Yet again Scottish Opera are taking music far and wide throughout Scotland: do put yourself out to catch this show if you possibly can!
Full details of the tour can be found at http://www.scottishopera.org.uk