George & Ira Gershwin Porgy & Bess
Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Recital
**** (4 stars)
Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists programme gives a period of full-time work with the Company to young people endeavouring to establish their careers. Starting just with singers, the programme has been extended to give the same opportunity to a composer-in-residence, a repetiteur and a costume trainee.
It’s always a joy to see these young artists as they progress through their year, and this year’s crop of singers are no exception. Charlie Drummond had already delighted me in the autumn Opera Highlights tour and moved me in her brief cameo as the Geisha in Mascagni’s Iris, so I was sorry to learn that a last-minute illness meant she had to withdraw from the recital. In her absence, mezzo Heather Ireson and baritones Arthur Bruce and Mark Nathan, accompanied by Michael Papadopoulos, entertained us right royally.
Heather got us off to an electrifying start with Dorabella’s dramatic hissy fit from Mozart’s Così fan tutte – the drama queen saying ‘sod off and leave me alone: if I don’t die of grief I’ll end my days in misery’. She showed the very real conflict of interests as Zerlina tries unsuccessfuly to resist Don Giovanni’s advances in là ci darem la mano; and followed this with what for me was the highlight of the afternoon – Minskwoman’s soliloquy I bought this suitcase in New York. Initially a sunlit recollection of happy times, it becomes a lament for lost selfhood – “Tired woman, drained of life” – as her life leaches away before her eyes under the mound of nappies and baby clothes that consume her very existence. It was a superb performance, rightly greeted with a long silence and prolonged applause.
The two baritones presented a fascinating contrast in vocal quality and personality. Arthur Bruce, already seen in Amadeus and the Bard and Iris this season, began with Belcore’s swaggering Come Paride vezzoso from Donizetti’s L’Élisir d’Amore: his huge, bright sound effortlessly voicing his massive egocentric swagger. He showed a much wider-ranging mixture of emotions as he tried to comfort a grieving Ariadne in Harlequin’s aria Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen from Richard Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos, and as Valentin expressed his concern for his sister, Marguerite when he is called up to fight in Avant de quitter ces lieux from Gounod’s Faust. I look forward to seeing him later this year in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited and The Gondoliers.
Mark Nathan’s darker, subtler, and more flexible baritone brought us two less well-known arias – O Lisbona alfin ti miro from Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano and Komm, Tzigany from Kalman’s Gräfin Maritza – in both of which he displayed a wide range of emotions. The famous poet who fought beside Don Sebastian, was captured and enslaved, and can hardly believe he sees his beloved Lisbon once more had moments of velvet-soft pathos and soul-stirring patriotic outbursts, while as the disguised Count Tassilo he poured out his feelings for his native land [and the Countess Maritza] as he celebrates the Life of the gypsy. I enjoyed Mark’s performance in the autumn Opera Highlights tour and look forward to seeing him in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Gondoliers.
The programme ended with two delightfully cheerful numbers – the Gendarmes’ duet from Offenbach’s Geneviève de Brabant and the Champagne aria from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus – which allowed the singers to let their hair down and have enormous fun, sending us out with a smile into the dreich Glasgow afternoon
Michael Papadopoulos did a great job of accompanying the stylistically varied programme: he’s also been working on most of the pieces in this year’s season, was assistant conductor for Iris and will be the music director and pianist for the spring Opera Highlights tour.
Thank you from all of us for an Amazing 2019!
With Hogmanay and the New Year Celebrations just around the corner, We at Scotsgay Arts have just published our 100th and final review for 2019. 2019 has been a epic year across the cultural landscape of Scotland and its as much of an honour and privilege now as it has been since we started to be able to sample the very best of the countries output.
To all 100 hundred productions we reviewed, the many more we previewed, the 100’s of reviews on our sister site SGFringe.com we thank you for sharing your work with us, for being brave and sharing your creative endeavours with the world and for continuing to push the boundaries of the last truly uncensored space known as the theatre.
Personally I am indebted to the hard of work of my fellow writer Mary Woodward and thankful for the guidance and support of Taylor Crockett especially during the biggest arts festival known as The Edinburgh International Fringe Festival. My profound thanks to Kieran A Wilson for his guest writing contributions.
We will be back in 2020 with even more of the very best, News, views, Previews and Reviews from across Scotland. To you and yours thank you for being with us in 2019 we wish you a peaceful and Prosperous New Year.
Scottish Ballet, The Snow Queen,
**** (4 stars)
Scottish Ballet’s Christopher Hanson has taken the Hans Christian Andersen story about a little boy Kay who is rescued from the clutches of the heartless Snow Queen by his friend Gerda and created a full-length ballet which mixes elements of the Andersen story with inventions of his own to create something one might be forgiven for thinking of as Frozen Gone Wrong.
The white-haired Snow Queen has a dark-haired sister, the Summer Princess. Together they see in the Queen’s magic mirror the image of a young man, whom the Princess instantly decides must be her true love: despite the Queen’s disapproval she rushes off to find him, disguising herself on the way as Lexi, a young pickpocket. Lexi arrives in the town where the young man – Kai – lives, only to see him propose to his sweetheart, Gerda, and give her a diamond ring. Suddenly time stops as the Snow Queen appears and casts a spell on Kai: he ignores Gerda and shows more interest in the circus which has just arrived in town.
Kai volunteers to take part in the circus’s magic disappearing trick but when it’s time for him to reappear he’s really vanished – the Snow Queen has frozen time again and stolen him away. Gerda is distraught, and begs Lexi to help her find Kai – reluctantly ‘he’ agrees, but only when Gerda has been forced to pay ‘him’ with her engagement ring. On their journey they encounter a bandit camp where a fortune teller tells them Kai is in the Snow Queen’s palace. Gerda goes on alone, encountering wolves, dancing snowflakes and frost-men who try unsuccessfully to stop her. She tries to rescue Kai, but he is obsessed with the Queen and ignores her. Gerda is powerless against the Queen: suddenly Lexi appears in her true guise and fights and defeats her sister. Kai seems dead, but Gerda’s tears melt the ice in his heart and the two lovers are reunited.
It’s a fascinating story, generally well-told, though I do wish I were more familiar with ballet gestures: there were one or two which were obviously extremely important, but which to me could have meant just about anything… Most of the narrative was clear and well-told, but the final ‘battle’ between the sisters was underwhelming in the extreme and the dénouement brought a ripple of giggles to the house which seems to indicate a little reworking is needed.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s music has been arranged by Richard Honner to provide a good ballet score, though on occasion I was slightly distracted by hearing something I recognised but generally couldn’t place: the exception being the Flight of the Bumblebee… The Scottish Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Jean-Claude Picard created some magical sound-pictures, with lively contrasts between the icy stillness of the Queen’s palace and the frosty aggression of her servants, the earthy realism of the town in which Kai and Gerda live, the rambunctious showmanship of the circus folk and the dramatic swagger of the bandits. Special mention must be made of on-stage gypsy violinist Gillian Risi who was unfazed by the extremely lively dancing going on all around her.
The dancing was full of contrasts with some outstanding passages. Kai and Gerda’s initial perfectly-synchronised duet reappeared, but with the two lovers now out of harmony with each other: Kai perfunctorily dancing with Gerda but being continually distracted first by the circus folk and then by the Snow Queen. The circus performers were impressive: I loved the Ring Master’s exuberant showmanship, the effortless way the Strong Man could pick up the Ballerina and the casual naughtiness of the Clowns. The bandits and their leader Zac leaped and danced joyfully and most impressively and even managed to entice timid Gerda to join them at times. I was less impressed by the ‘snow ballet’ which was a bit too ‘old school’ for my taste, and didn’t really do much to advance the story.
Sadly, I wasn’t taken with the Snow Queen herself – she danced most impressively but didn’t make me warm to her at all: there were hints that her heartlessness arose from her sister’s abandonment of her, but it didn’t convince me. Her sister was perhaps warmer and more impulsive but ultimately equally self-absorbed in going off after her man: no trace of the sisterly affection between Elsa and Anna here! Gerda was forced out of her small-town complacency [grow up, get married, have kids, die] and set off to rescue someone she loved, finding a previously unknown strength and resilience on the way; while Kai loved Gerda, was bewitched and forgot her, got rescued, and hopefully was a better and wiser man thereafter.
The audience obviously knew and loved their ballet, and were generous in their applause throughout. The Snow Queen is a delightful winter-time entertainment, with something to please, amuse, and entertain people of all ages: it’s a welcome change from the usual fare on offer at this season.
Scottish Ballet,The Snow Queen, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, run ends 29th Dec, for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/the-snow-queen
**** (4 stars).
I arrive at the Studio and watch the ever-increasing crowd of tinies, many in minute Christmas sweaters, eagerly await the invitation to enter the house for the first performance this year of Tortoise In A Nutshell’s Flutter. We are asked to take our shoes off, and most people comply, though for those whose feet, like mine, get cold very easily it’s possible to sit at the back of the audience. Most people, young and older alike, sit on the cushions and low benches nearest the stage but blessedly there are chairs for the less-bendy among us.
Flutter, The Studio, Edinburgh, Runs until 24th December, SOLD OUT
Strange Tales ,Traverse Theatre,
**** (4 stars)
This intriguing collection of stories was adapted for the stage by Pauline Lockhart and Ben Harrison from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, translated by Ewan Macdonald. Pu Songling wrote these tales around the time of the restoration of the Stuart monarchy after the English civil war, but their messages are as relevant today as they were when they were written, and easily cross the cultural divide between east and west.
When wind and snow fill the sky and the fire has grown cold, relight the coals, warm the wine and turn up the wick of the lamp. We enter these tales in the shadows of night, but hopefully emerge into daylight…
Master-storytellers Luna Dai, Robin Khor Yong Kuan and Pauline Lockhart present a fascinating Chinese, Malaysian Chinese and Scottish blend of wit, wisdom and experience as they tell us eight tales from Pu Songling’s collection. A dead young maiden seeks to escape from the demon that is forcing her to wreak a terrible vengeance on young men; a very refined young lady receives visits from two charming and amorous strangers who are not what they seem; a young man from Paisley who wants to learn a short cut to eternal wisdom gets what he deserves, and we learn to beware of sneezing and corrupt fortune tellers.
We are warned at the start – unless we approach these tales with an open mind and a brave heart, we may be taken over by them and never break free: and should we be feeling somewhat sceptical, we are given a graphic illustration of this very fate at the end of the show…
This co-production between Grid Iron and the Traverse is a visually splendid and delightfully engaging blend of storytelling, puppetry, martial arts and physical theatre, with fascinatingly diverse costumes, haunting music, cutting-edge digital technology and subtly terrifying sound effects. I loved the kimonos, was particularly impressed by the giant red demon, and will never feel quite the same again about eyes…
Fox spirits may not be familiar us in Scotland – but there are kelpies and selkies and other creatures which interact with humans in both loving and terrible ways, while demons and ghosts are part of both eastern and western tales, though they may assume different forms. What is interesting is the very different attitude towards death and ghosts, and the belief that it is possible for the dead to interact with the living and even be brought back to life.
Strange Tales is not for the faint-hearted, or those of a nervous disposition – there’s an age guide of 14+: but if you want to shiver with fear, laugh out loud, and cheer when evil is defeated, look no further than the Traverse this December!
Strange Tales, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh run ends 21st December, for tickets go to: https://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event/strange-tales
Mascagni Iris: Scottish Opera in Concert
***** (5 stars)
Earlier this year Scottish Opera’s conductor Stuart Stratford bounced on to the stage and enthusiastically introduced us to Mascagni’s Silvano: now, equally enthusiastically, he invited us to become acquainted with another rarely-performed work by the same composer. At Iris’ first performance in 1898 the opening choral and orchestral Hymn to the Sun was an immediate hit – and yesterday’s performance supported Stuart’s belief that it’s probably the best operatic sunrise there is, powerfully depicting the glory and life-affirming warmth of the sun.
Unlike previous concert performances by Scottish Opera Iris was not semi-staged, though the singers were in costume. Stuart explained that he and the cast had all been struck down with flu at various times in the rehearsal period – and, indeed, the original Iris had had to withdraw after that morning’s dress rehearsal, her place being taken at very short notice by a superb young Australian soprano, Kiandra Howarth, of whom we are surely going to hear much more in future.
The plot is fairly simple – Iris, a beautiful young girl, lives with and cares for her blind father. She is still of an age to play with dolls, and loves the birds and flowers in the garden that surrounds her little cottage. Her beauty attracts the attention of a young nobleman, Osaka. With the assistance of Kyoto, keeper of the local geisha house, and Dhia, one of his geishas, Iris is kidnapped and taken to the geisha house.
Osaka endeavours to seduce Iris, who simply doesn’t understand what he’s getting at. Osaka is quickly bored, and Kyoto decides to display his newest acquisition to the locals, who are astonished at her beauty. Iris’ blind father arrives and, believing his daughter to have deliberately abandoned him and chosen to enter the geisha house, curses her and spits at her. Iris, now completely bewildered and terrified, throws herself from the balcony into the open sewer below the geisha house.
Three days later, Iris’ body is discovered in the sewer by rag-pickers and scavengers, who scatter when they realise she is still alive. Delirious, she imagines she is visited by Osaka, Kyoto and her father, all of whom show no remorse as they bid her farewell. She feels the rays of the rising sun warming her, and sings the ecstatic hymn to the sun as she dies among a field of flowers which spring up around her.
It’s a shocking piece which is all too relevant today. I feel it could well be re-named Così fan tutti – All men are thus – as it highlights the heartless treatment of women as sex toys, objects to be bought and sold, used, and abandoned without a thought. There is no point at which the men demonstrate any remorse for their behaviour, or the slightest understanding of their complicity in her death – Osaka says he’s going to look elsewhere now, Kyoto sees her as the victim of her own beauty, and her father berates her because now there’s no-one to see to his comfort. In the equivalent of a musical shrug all three sing Così la vita; addìo / vo [such is life; goodbye / I’m off ]…
The music is superb, with many original and unusual instrumental combinations and sonorities. I’m glad Stuart Stratford pointed out many things to listen out for – the most unusual being the leader of the orchestra’s positioning of a coffee cup on the body of his violin at the beginning of act three, producing a weird buzzing sound to lead us into the darkness of the sewer in which Iris’ broken body lies.
The singing was magnificent, with the greatest honours going to Kiandra Howarth whose radiant innocence and utter belief in the power of the sun god’s son Jor was in stark contrast to the duplicitous and self-absorbed Osaka of Ric Furman and Roland Wood’s corrupt and heartless Kyoto. Charlie Drummond’s Geisha was an aural delight, and I loved her fabulously embroidered rose-coloured kimono! James Creswell’s sonorous and powerful bass gave full weight to Iris’ blind father, while Aled Hall made the most of his few moments in the spotlight as he celebrated the moon’s light in act three. Arthur Bruce and Fraser Simpson sang their wee parts from among the chorus, who were major players in the drama, while above, around, and throughout the whole performance the brilliant Scottish Opera Orchestra created a unique and unforgettable sound world in which a heartbreaking but all too contemporary tragedy was played out.
Yet again Scottish Opera have brought a neglected masterpiece to vibrant life – we can but hope that there will be a repeat performance before too long.
Mascagni Iris: Scottish Opera in Concert, City Halls, Glasgow, RUN ENDED