Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera: Opera Highlights Autumn tour, Biggar Municipal Hall, Review

**** (4 stars)

“irrepressible exuberance”

The packed municipal hall in Biggar was treated to another fabulous compilation of some of opera’s “best bits”, selected and neatly put together by Scottish Opera’s music director, Derek Clark.  The soloists – soprano Zoe Drummond, mezzo Shakira Tsindos, tenor Osian Wyn Bowen and baritone Christopher Nairn – were further examples of the company’s excellent eye for promising young singers.  Zoe and Osian are two of this year’s Emerging Artists, while Shakira and Christopher are making their Scottish Opera debut.  Their accompanist and music director is another of this year’s Emerging Artists – Kristina Yorgova.

For once, the arias selected didn’t carry the four soloists through a narrative that developed as the show progressed.  Instead, they emerged on stage as pupils in the School of Love, learning the hard way about the joys and sorrows, pitfalls and pleasures of falling in love and/or being the victims of others’ affections, both positive and negative.  A handy clue to what was going on for those whose language skills didn’t suffice for the variety of languages used throughout the evening was the clever use of a blackboard on which “The one where…” was supplemented by a board summarising  the current aria’s storyline.  “The love of your life marries another”; “you’re surrounded by idiots”; “your boss fancies your fiancé”; “you decide to kill your boss”; “when nothing spoils your day” and “all your dreams come true” are but a few of the plethora of emotions poured out at us by four very versatile performers.

The set was very simple – a sparkly curtain of ribbons behind four tall black locker-like structures which could be doorways through which characters could enter, blackboards on which words and pictures could be chalked, and pieces of furniture: a dining table, a potential sarcophagus, or whatever else a scene required.  Small black boxes on wheels could be seats, chalkboards, and receptacles for innumerable props.  The lighting was simple but extremely effective, and the movement around the stage seemingly random but artfully choreographed for maximum effect: I feel sure our four soloists are splendidly equipped for a career in musical theatre should opera cease to charm.

But how could it cease to charm?  By the looks of it, all four singers really enjoyed strutting their stuff in front of an enraptured audience.  Everything was good, much was very good, and some of it simply outstanding; each of the singers had their strengths and not quite weaknesses but less comfortable moments; and I’m sure each audience member had different ‘favourite bits’ at the end of the evening.

My favourites included the trio from Beethoven’s Fidelio [sung by Shakira, Osian and Christopher], where Leonora, disguised as the youth Fidelio, finally finds her imprisoned husband and begs his jailor to let her give the starving man some bread.   Osian showed how well French fits his well-rounded and expressive tenor voice in Mylio’s beguiling serenade Vainement, ma bien-aimé from Lalo’s Le Roi d’ys, and when he was joined by Christopher in the famous “brothers in love” duet from Bizet’s Pearl Fishersau fond du temple saint.  It was superbly sung, but I felt Christopher’s magnificently powerful baritone tended to overpower Osian in the most passionate sections.  Zoe gave us some gorgeous “I’m a soprano in love and I can sing quite brilliantly” arias in first Russian and then French – I particularly liked the waltz O légère hirondelle from Gounod’s Mireille.  She then did another typically soprano “I’m totally beautiful and I’m going to wind you simpleton round my little finger” duet with Osian, this time in English – I know a lovely girl from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.   Shakira showed how much fun a good mezzo can have, switching emotions and gender with consummate ease. 

The second half of the programme opened with a fascinating piece with music by Toby Hession and words from Emma Jenkins.  It was an intriguing mixture of contemporary dinner party and Macbeth-referencing temptation to kill one’s boss.  Mac [Christopher] and Beth [Zoe] prepare to host Duncan [Osian], Mac’s boss but only Mac can see and hear the witch Hecate [Shakira], who is urging him to kill Duncan.  Zoe was the perfect brittle socialite determined to advance her husband’s career while despising his ineptitude; Shakira prowled menacingly and tempted beguilingly; Mac tried unavailingly to resist her wiles, protesting that he’s been good to me, he’s a decent man; and Duncan, initially oblivious to the unsettling atmosphere, became increasingly worried and anxious to escape the situation.  It didn’t end well!  The audience was greatly amused by the whole piece, and found the experience of trained singers singing swear words particularly funny.   I was greatly impressed by the quartet’s ability effortlessly to handle the demanding score and the complex choreography both of movement and of the use of props.

Another highlight for me was Osian singing Six years and seven days from Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe.  The eponymous hero bemoans his fate and recounts the terrible circumstances which led to his isolation on a remote island – it’s an aria of staggering beauty and complexity and I loved it!  In fact, I loved it so much I really wanted to hear it without the extremely funny shenanigans going on behind the ‘it was a tablecloth and now it’s the sea behind you’ screen.  I appreciated the other three’s antics, and the rest of the audience were virtually hysterical with laughter – but oh how I longed to hear the aria again without the distractions…

There were many other excellent arias, duets, and trios in the programme, but the most gloriously perfect piece for me was the duet Io t’abbracio from Handel’s Rodelinda. Rodelinda [Zoe], has been reunited with her husband Bertarido [sung as a trouser role by Shakira].  The villain Grimoaldo threatens their lives, and the couple sing what they believe is their final farewell.  Handel is a matchless composer of arias and duets expressing the searing agonies of love, loss, betrayals and final partings, and this aria is no exception.  The exquisite vocal lines, clashing against and twining around each other, are supported by sparse and simple orchestral lines which accentuate the pain the singers are experiencing: it was simply magic.

The evening ended with an amusing trio from Johann Strauss II’s The Gypsy Baron and the applause rang out loud and long.  But that wasn’t the end – the real treat came when all four singers let their hair down and gave us a fabulously quirky arrangement by Derek Clark of Noel Coward’s Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington in which Zoe gave us snatches of instantly recognizable soprano classics, only to be interrupted each time by the other three imploring her mother to refrain from inflicting so much suffering on the innocent public.  Song, dance, music, comedy – we saw it all, and revelled in the irrepressible exuberance with which all four singers ended another brilliantly entertaining Opera Highlights tour.

Scottish Opera: Opera Highlights Autumn tour, Tour Continues until 29th October, for information and tickets go to: Opera Highlights 2022/23 | Scottish Opera

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