Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera Pop-up, Fisherrow Links, Musselburgh, Review:

Scottish Opera Pop-up, Fisherrow Links, Musselburgh 

A little bit of Barber, A Little bit of Figaro and Be a Sport, Spike

**** (4 stars) 

Once again, Scottish Opera have hit the road bringing tasters of opera to all parts of Scotland.  After last year’s highly enjoyable introductions to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore I was keen to see how the team would tackle reducing two pretty complex and well-known operas to a half-hour format.  The Barber of Seville has a fairly simple plot – tenor and baritone conspire to release the soprano from the bass’s clutches to facilitate the ‘happy every after’ soprano and tenor finale, but the plot of The Marriage of Figaro normally takes me a whole page to summarise… [Figaro wants to marry Susanna, the Count wants first go at her, the Contessa is miserably aware of her husband’s infidelities, but despite many attempts to prevent the marriage, it all works out in the end.]  In both cases, the story was told entertainingly and fairly accurately, given how much simply had to be omitted.

I know both operas well, so found it fascinating to see how head of music Derek Clark used little bits of arias, pinched a phrase or two from here and some notes from there and [in a couple of places] even wrote some new words to help the story along – but I couldn’t help wishing that, for the sake of people not used to Italian or opera could have understood what the characters were singing.  Yes, Allan Dunn did a brilliant job of story-telling, but even though soprano Jessica Leary and baritone Andrew McTaggart were chameleon-like in their ability repeatedly to change costume and character in a matter of seconds, I feel that the audience’s understanding of what was going on could only have been enhanced by hearing their own language being sung to them.  [of course, this makes the massive assumption that everyone listening spoke English – oops!]

It was also extremely interesting to see how well the singers managed the widely-differing ranges and voice types of the characters – especially in Barber, where Andrew McTaggart sang not only Figaro, in his own range, but Dr Bartolo and Don Basilio [basses] and the hero Count Almaviva [tenor – admittedly an octave lower].  Jessica Leary had an easier job here, “only” having to sing the heroine, Rosina – but in Figaro she not only changed roles but swapped gender too, playing the Contessa, Susanna, and the pageboy Cherubino!

Guitarist Sasha Savaloni [or it might have been Ian Watt – sorry!] and cellist Andrew Drummond Hagan were brilliant both as solo/duettists and as accompanists to the shenanigans on stage – I particularly appreciated the [very truncated] overture to each piece, and only wished they had been longer.  I gather some audiences were convinced that there were more musicians hidden behind the scenes but no, there were just the two of them.  Both performances had sizeable and very appreciative audiences [apart from a Westie who barked his disapproval and had to be led away] – I do hope some new-to-opera people were inspired to investigate further.

And that was going to be me finished: but there was such an eloquent plug for the third show on offer that I felt I had to return to discover what Be a sport, Spike! was all about – and I’m so very glad I did.  Alan Dunn played a much more interactive part in this show, which circled around the outstanding sporting prowess of Mike the Spike McTavish, who excelled at just about everything and wasn’t shy of showing us just how good he was at every sport he took part in – swimming, weight-lifting, running, cycling – there was no end to his outstanding abilities.

Suddenly someone was screaming – and the great Maria the Diva entered, singing “I am enraged, I am furious” and we wondered what had hit us… She revealed that she had been asked to sing at the opening ceremony of the Games, which was only fitting, given that she is the best singer in the world: her fury arose because she had been asked to sing a DUET.  How could she, when there was no-one in the world able to sing well enough to sing with her?  

She launched into an impressively florid aria [thank you, composer Karen McIver – I’d love a chance to sing this!], which demonstrated the justice of her claims – who, indeed, was worthy to sing with her?  Spike was open-mouthed in admiration of her talent and smitten with her too, but when invited to sing a glorious melody could only emit appalling groans.  “Please teach me to sing like you”, he pleaded – but his early efforts were dismal, and he needed strong encouragement from us in the audience to continue practising.  Treating it like his sports training and putting in some hard work had the desired effect, and he was finally able to join in singing with Diva Maria.  She was so impressed with his voice she chose Spike to sing with her at the Games, and together they waltzed and celebrated Spike’s realisation of what had at first seemed like an impossible dream.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable show which deserved a much larger audience – advertising it as for 4-8-year-olds was possibly a mistake, as the story line and music are of universal appeal: indeed, they might well encourage those of us who never thought they could sing to give it a go!  Spike was particularly pertinent to me as Jessica Leary was one of the teachers in my recent Breath Cycle workshops, where she gave me and many others the encouragement and help we needed to find or, in some cases, regain our voices – so it was lovely to be able to thank her in person.

With music by Karen McIver and words by Ross Stenhouse, Be a sport, Spike was a fitting finale to a splendid day out on Fisherrow Links – and it didn’t begin to rain until the very last moment!  Scottish Opera truly are dedicated to bringing opera to the furthest-flung parts of Scotland: I am so glad they do, and look forward to their next venture to the Honest Toun.  

In the meantime, I’m eagerly anticipating a concert performance of Massenet’s Thérèse in Haddington in early September while having to go through to Glasgow for their youth company’s new show, Rubble [30 & 31 July] and another community chorus venture – Bernstein’s Candide [11 – 20 August], in a promenade performance and the must-see return of Bambin0, the utterly amazing show for under-one-year-olds, which is touring the country during August and September.  And then we’ll have the new 2022-3 productions to enjoy…  see you there, I hope!

Mary Woodward

Scottish Opera Pop-up, Musselburgh Run Ended but the production is on tour till 10th July.

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