Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Mar 12,14,16
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Mar 21-23
You wait years for one Janacek operatic masterpiece to be revived on the British Islands, then three come along at once. When I say three, I actually mean the same one being performed more or less at the same time by three different companies. The opera in question is Katya Kabanova by Leoš Janáček, & the companies are Opera North, the Royal Opera House & for my personal delectation, Scottish Opera.
Janáček was a prolific Czech composer, who lived in a halyconic period for opera between the years of 1854 & 1928. The reputation for his syrupy, swirling time signatures has grown consistently over the past century, with the British affection being formerly ordained via the Prague National Theatre’s visit to the Edinburgh festival in 1964.
In the last decade of his life, the one in which Katya Kabanova was produced, Janacek had found love & musedom with the much younger Kamila Stösslová. The passion they generated seems to penetrate Katya, with Janáček declaring that the composition had flowed like “the beautiful river Volga”. Indeed, at all times the music seems very personal, drawn from real experience, or at least interpretations of those experiences, rather than abstract artistic ideals.
Katya Kabanova is a solemn, but ultimately satisfying piece. A tale of illicit activity between a love-starved stay-at-home, caged bird wife who becomes possessed by the magnetism of a gregarious young buck – with a suitable suicide to finish. A simple tale, but enriched a thousandfold by Janacek’s music. For the SO version, in her debut for the company Laura Wilde was stunning, flawless even, & dramatic, o yes, so watchable, so powerfully pathetic.
‘Look at the precious bird, see how she gets her feathers ruffl’d.’
Beside Katya, the other women are all strong forces, & perhaps all were merely avatars of Kamila Stösslová. Each are interesting, profound even, & on the night were sung beautifully. The men, of course, sang equally as well, but the male characterizations are noticeably shallow in the shadows of the goddesses. This is no fault of the singers, of course, but this is a heroine opera.
The setting is the river Volga & a small bourgeois town beside it. Aesthetically the stage was incredibly pleasing; from riverbank reeds to giant bridge-girders taken from South Queensferry. For those who know the opera the bridge was an ever present Sword of Damocles hanging over the denoument. I also loved the communist factory vibe, with the costumes seemingly taken from a 1970’s episode of Coronation Street – they were very cool!
‘Because you love theatre,’ is the SO’s mantra, ‘because you love opera,’ & to experience this particular opera on this particular occasion felt like experiencing the true meaning of art on all its many wonderful levels. A precise & extremely pleasurable production, of whom all involved should be proud to played a part.
Damian Beeson Bullen
Opera is one of the most Universal creations of Humanity, the Esparanto of the arts. Sung in various languages to various language groups, the emotions which transpire between singers & audience is always understood. Such universality aids Scottish Opera to whisk itself upon the wings of appreciative applause about the entire Caledonian Wood. Venues on the Outer Hebrides & at Durness, near Cape Wrath, show the far-reaching remit of the tour. For my encounter I thought I would head to the tour’s most easterly visit – Duns in the Scottish Borders, a delightful drive over the Lammermuirs, dimly lit by the passing of the day, dozens of rabbits scattering before me quite albino in the full beam of the headlights. On reaching delightful Duns I found myself at the cavernous Volunteer Hall – purchased recently by the ‘A Heart for Duns’ group – alongside a healthy assemblage of local opera-lovers all wondering what ‘highlights’ we were actually to witness, & how would they be done!
Obviously a full cast, orchestra & wardrobe would be impractical for such an effort – therefore only two male singers, two female singers, & a pianist are sent out to do the good work. These are Lucy Anderson – the Robertson Trust Scottish Opera Emerging Artist for 2018-19; Scottish mezzo-soprano Heather Ireson; & making their S.O. debuts were tenor Tom Smith & Baritone Harry Thatcher. Accompanying their comblended & unwavering, streamlined voices was galloping pianist & musical director, Elizabeth Rowe; together the ensemble provided a frivolously fun cocktail of talent, quirky characterizations & ‘picaresque delight.’
Opera Highlights is a most entertaining, multi-lingual jaunt, threaded loosely together by a narrative, & examples, of what a good opera should include. Of the concept, director Sara Brodie told The Mumble that the journey is, ‘an episodic adventure through many realms.’ It was all that, yes, & was more than wonderfully sung, if a little hamly acted at times. We heard 21 pieces by the end; Che faro senza Euridice from Orfe ed Euridice, Csardas from Die Fledermaus & Faery Song from the Immortal Hour were my favorites. It really was a successfully wrought dream sequence, a true chocolate box of delights when at no point did I find myself chewing one of those tough toffee ones from a Quality Street collection.
Damian Beeson Bullen
THE MUMBLE TEAM
Are taking their annual Festive Break
SEE YOU ALL IN THE SPRING !!
Saint Cuthbert’s Church
Thursday 23rd August
With its ninth nation-touring production, Opera Bohemia has recently completed its touring itinerary of Verdi’s Falstaff. I caught them at the end of the Fringe at Saint Cuthbert’s Church in Edinburgh, the same place where I witnessed OB perform Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi a couple of years ago, which to this day remains my favorite peformance of any opera, it was just so well done. One of the reasons was how the ensemble handle the nuances of comedy with extreme vivacity, & I was very much looking forward to seeing what they could do with one of those cultural rarities – a Verdi comedy. There were only two in fact, composed fifty years apart – ‘Un Giorno di Regno‘, the second opera of his long career, and of course Falstaff, his last, composed upon the approach to 80. ‘Un Giorno’ is a bit shoddy & surely made Verdi realise comedy was not his forte; but perhaps the failure had always haunted him, & on creating Falstaff would use all his talents to create a comic masterpiece.
After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes & heroines,
I have at last the right to laugh a little
Falstaff is presented in three acts, with the libretto adapted by Arrigo Boito from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, plus a sprinkling scenes from Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. A pastiche, then, it tells of farcical efforts of Sir John Falstaff to seduce two married women in order to gget his grubby hands on their husbands’ wealth. Premiered in February 1893, at La Scala, the quibbling Verdiphile purists hated it, & it may have slipped between the cracks but for Toscanini’s championing of the piece. By 2018, the popularity of Falstaff emanated majestically from a full-pewed Saint Cuthberts, while OB’s excellent & atmospheric 11-piece orchestra played the opening strains to the expert wand-weaving of Alistair Digges.
Witnessing opera at Saint Cuthberts is a joy, I simply adore the crystalline audionics. As for the performance, Andrew McTaggart was vitally commanding as ‘Immenso Falstaff, Enorme Falstaff,’ who frollicked all over Verdi’s adventurous score. Both Catriona Clark (Alice Ford) & Fiona Mackenzie (Meg Page) looked beautiful, sang soprano beautifully, & pulled off the amorous gamesladyship with glamor & guile. Between them, Hazel Mc Bain’s Nanetta fluttered about, while Douglas Nairne pulled off a fantastic & dramatic job as the jealous Mr Ford.
Experiencing the kettleboiling operatics of Falstaff is like going on a speedboat ride – there’s barely a moment’s rest, & in the hands & voices of OB it was all so jolly. & so fun, & so expertly sung. Falstaff requires a strong cast of ten principals, & each flowed equally into their rich pool of talent. Production wise, Elizabethen England had been shunted forwards a few centuries; The House of Ford was now a department store, which is expertly transformed into the Windsor Great Park for the bullish finale. The famous laundary basket scene, where Falstaff is thrown into the Thames inside of one, was another clever piece in a long procession of top-notch stagecraft – here a desperate McTaggart is squeezed inside a packing case marked with a capital F. Director Adrian Osmand has given us an authentic opera, sung in Italian (with subtitles), creamy as gelato, & best off all, funny. He who laughs last, laughs loudest, & I’m still chuckling as I write this review.
This Opera in the well-known Blythswood Hall on Bath Street had, to my eyes, a sense of impermanence with our many chairs simply set up for this specific evening. The hall is used for many differing events and dances but it is a church based venue where this scene was set. It’s usage, fairly large, had a beautiful stage with exposed brick at the back creating a plush feeling from their sensible budget . The sparse set was well done and the stage seemed to shine with brass and brick. The coffee shop of scene 1 soon erupted and was immediately into its deep plunge of already amalgamated music.
The Italian (as it was written) worked well with the translation that was placed above the stage, which was a good place because it meant that you could flip easily between everything that was going on. The lyrics were, as with most Italian operas, was very dramatic, based on emotion and had a depth that was thrilling, showing how poetics can drive with a great force and become something old and new to the peering eye of the audience.
Original instrumentation (from Mozart’s direction) included 2 timpani percussion instruments, these were left out for the Blythswood hall performance changing attention to the louder voices of each character, actor. Everything that happens during the performance for me led away from the fact that this was a farce and was intended to be so. Beethoven (though supportive of Mozart described this opera as immoral, a name that has held sway in 1790 right up until relatively recently. Mozart himself was going through turmoil in his love life and so felt upright about his writing of the Cosi Fan Tutte.
The plot moved around in a seemingly fast manner yet there was time to digest it as it moved along, scene by scene. Though there was a lot to get through, being a full on opera, there was no rush or tardiness. The movement in the overture was greatly created by Mozart in its classical adherence yet for Fan Tutte he dismantled classical opera and music replacing those with the farce comedic over riding concept. There are similarities between this work and William Shakespeare’s play ‘The taming of the shrew’. There was a sense in Fan Tutte of mockery especially in the field of serious opera writing.
The significance of comedy was enhanced because of the more serious insinuations that are inherent in opera. There was a sense of spite involved in the evening making fun of human fealty between men and woman who are reduced to farce. The costume ideas ran well in the shape of things, set around early twentieth century rather than what would have been in style in the late 1700ds perhaps as an indication to the fact that the opera had only recently been endorsed by society (now it is looked at with favour).
The great roles and twists of the cast were potent and stand alone. Each of whom (9) had a special importance especially in their timing, which was perfectly enhanced from the intention of the work, as is in classical opera. The precision of all the detail becomes more apparent after seeing Fan Tutte as you take your walk home realising more observation took place than it felt like in the hall. Retracing how the cast worked becomes more wonderful at the realisation of what each situation held for them.
The two Fiordiligi sisters played by Angharad Shanahan and Katharina Gebauer had so much to do with each other telling themselves in despair and in the return of hope as they languish. The two perpetrators in the plot were Despana played by Kelli-Ann Masterson and Don Alfonso played by Eric Patterson. Don Alfonso put the sisters to pay with his cunningly adapted plan to prove that the two sisters (Fiordiligi) won’t maintain their loyalty to their fiancée, who in the meantime hatch a plan of their own by faking army service abroad. The sister’s innocence was to be discarded throughout the night, though their treatment by the writer was scowling and filled with mockery. The plot is repeatedly eventful where as in this production the simple set is accepted as the right moment, sets were changed during live play which was kind of charming.
The stunning music of the orchestra who positioned themselves in front of the stage worked very well during. It was enthralling and enticing, and gave the actors great prominence in a completely professional way (budget being what it was). If you are interested in human behaviour there was some vivid components offering up to consideration. Who was more vulnerable? The sisters or their fiancée’s? do we rely on each other for different things? Is there a division between the sexes?
Mozart knew this and he depicted accordingly, this same accordance was a part of this performance that offered an acute appeal within the whole piece of the Opera. Razvan Luculescu, who was musical director, led the music behind a screen, together with the off stage orchestra. His extensive career where at the moment he works in Falkirk helped lead to the conduction of Fan Tutte. The young orchestra were dependable, making each component have no doubt as to quality and therefor I shall desist with the idea of the evening being amateur.
In fact Clyde Opera Group is in its third year as a community group who invite enthusiasts of theatre (opera) all of whom work with Hanna Brown the director. Their aim is to bring live opera to Glasgow, though as yet they have little or no funding. They use it wisely making the best out of everything that it takes to get this sort of evening together, we should at least admire the tact of the production and its commitment to opera in Glasgow.
In act 2 we saw a rise in general content (inclusive of all aspects) it seemed more like a tragedy than a comedy. Or perhaps it was a tragic comedy which all depends on the Mozart’s intentions which was perhaps to strike a blow coming from his own personal frustration, a link his work is known for.
Every time Don Alfonso was to sing his baritone a distance of character was obvious along-side his contempt for the face of Human frailty (namely it’s unfaithfulness). He darkened the door step of the two couples that happened again by Despina’s reaction to the story of where woman should be faithful to their fiancée’s. The pivotal role of what we would now call swinging was an indication of Mozart’s fragile and thus offended reasonability. He still shines through his abilities for creating the very best in classical antiquity.
Subtitles are actually a big deal, they add an extra dimension where one is inspired to an aspiring degree. There is fun to be found with this extra dimension of piecing together the different hatches to make up a whole. All of the evening functioned in this way and delivered a concise and consistent portrayal by the Clyde Opera Group of the controversial satiated composition
PAISLEY OPERA HOUSE
SEEDHILL SPORTS GROUND
26th, 28th, 29th July
It will be talked about for a long time to come. On a sports field in Paisley Scottish Opera erected a temporary Opera House: a tent comprised of a series of huge curving, airy shells. An hour before their production of Leoncavello’s “Paglicacci” began, it was buzzing with face painting, a chance to try on costumes, a donkey, games, a raffle for the chance to conduct the William Tell overture, and there were hot dogs, ice cream and a Punch and Judy show. So, no stuffy foyer bar in this Opera House then.
And it was standing room only, literally, because this was a promenade performance unlike any other. We the audience circulated around a curtained trailer; as the action moved, so did we. The chorus and dancing villagers turned out to be the man, woman or child standing next to you, and audience participation was unavoidable. It was an absolutely joyous communal experience, with amateur singers and dancers drawn from all sections of the local community who had been trained hard to achieve astonishing, sometimes ravishing results. The surround-sound produced by nearly a hundred voices standing among the audience during the big choruses, was very affecting and unforgettable.
The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, looking relaxed in brightly coloured summer dresses – and some even brighter shirts – did not relax their standards one iota under conductor Stuart Stratford, producing a remarkably bright and articulate sound given their canvas backdrop and turf floor. For some of the audience this was a first experience of opera. It was sung in English and the five-strong cast were all excellent in terms of acting as well as singing – not always the case. But being able to stand within a few feet of the outstanding tenor Ronald Samm as he sang the anguished clown Pagliacci’s famous aria “On with the costume”, many were visibly moved, sharing his heartbreak. You don’t feel that effect at the back of the stalls at the Theatre Royal. Nor can you sit almost in touching distance of the stage set for the play within a play, which was revealed when the trailer’s curtains were fully drawn back.
It barely mattered, but the plot, basically a simple story of a tragic love triangle among travelling players, was well articulated through brilliant use of all elements of theatre, visual as well as dramatic and musical. Designer Tim Meacock produced a surreal yet comic set, enabling the tragedy and comedy of the story to co-exist until the final explosive scene and the lovers’ deaths. Out of a potential whirlpool of standing and moving bodies Director Bill Bankes-Jones managed to create a remarkably coherent theatrical event in which everyone present had a part to play. For three nights there really was a Paisley Opera House and the people of Paisley made a remarkable happening happen. Opera in a tent? Some opera, some tent.
Glasgow Theatre Royal
17th February 2017
It was time for the first opera of the year. The long winter is almost over, the nights are getting vaguely lighter, & of course the snowdrop metropoli are in abundance wherever there are fallen leaves to nourish them. The wife & I drove the hour & a tiny bit from East Lothian to Glasgow, a pleasant run, now the East End of Glasgow’s motorway system has been neatened up. It was time for the first opera of the year, the bafflingly brilliant Flight, returning to Scotland for the first time since its 2006 showing at the New Athenaeum Theatre.
The creation of composer Jonathon Dove & librettist, April de Angelis, Flight is a multi-paced, multi-voiced symphonica, all played out in a single setting. This, of all places, is an airport’s waiting lounge, which of course offers fantastic potential for intensity of emotion & the almost infinite possibilities for vignettean dramas. Here, the expectancy of travel within the tens of minutes has the capacity to intensify life a thousandfold. I awaited the potential slivers of society cooked up by Dove & de Angelis with interest.
Summoned to our seats by a mock airport tannoy, I found myself in the bosom of TriStar Airlines, watching stellar-voiced James Laing’s shabbily dressed, documentless fellow roll straight out of Tom Hanks’s Immigrant. Both the Hollywood & the operatic avatars were inspired by the same man, Mehran Karimi Nasseri (aka Sir Alfred Mehran), who lived in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport between 1988 & 2006. On stage, right from the start, the operatic version forms a figure much like a quasi-mystical beggar-king, charming his way into the hearts & purses of all the female protagonists. These include a stewardess & three travelers, all four of whom have male interests in one form or the other. The stewardess (Sioned Gwen Davies) has hers right beside her, a fellow steward (Dingle Yandell) with whom she carries on an extremely raunchy affair. This bursts out into vivid, pornographic life in the elevator, & for which reason only the most liberal of parents should think about bringing their school-age kids along. The other three women are passengers; the woman of a certain age waiting for her young Spanish lover (Marie McLaughlin); the pregnant diplomat’s wife who chickens out on the big move to Minsk (Victoria Simmonds); & effervescent Stephanie Corley’s Tina, who provides much of the comedy alongside her husband side-kick & foil, played by the always excellent Peter Auty.
There is one more female voice, former Scottish Opera emerging Artist, soprano Jennifer France. She plays the Controller, who stands on a lofty perch above the stage, flicking out her supreme vocal talents over the tannoy like the wafts of a peacock’s tail. She really does hit the highest notes hearable to the human ear, & rather sweetly too. ‘This is the best time… just the thrum of air rushing along pipes,’ she sings at the commencement, a phantom-like figure who watches proceedings like the gods at Troy, while commenting on them at the same time in the classical rhapsodic fashion. As Flight progresses, she carries on some kind of weird relationship with Laing. ‘I like him to stare at me & adore me,’ she sings. I’m not quite sure why; it doesn’t really effect the opera at all – its all rather dreamlike – but the theme is there & could perhaps have been given a little extra beef in thee plot.
Musically, that ‘radically accessible… style’ described by David Kettle, like many of the emerging works of artists of leisurely longevity, Dove’s first opera could well be his best. Commissioned by Glyndebourne in 1998, & soaring supersonical across the world ever since, I especially liked the explosive & euphorical lasar-intense flourishes, such as when Bill & Tina, remembering their early passions, dueted, ‘the whole world disappeared except you.’ The music & the lyrics just work so well together, testament to Dove’s meeting with de Angelis at a hothouse opera-writing course at an early, burgeoning stage of both their careers. Occasionally, de Angelis fails like so many others in the English libretto’s fight against the cynghanedd-lacking, rhyme-constricting fibers of its language. ‘Sending planes up in the sky, & then they fly,’ ‘its not my fault, I live in a vault,’ are two examples.
My favorite musical moment was when the entire ensemble gazed towards the audience, transforming us into the runway, at which their vocals whoooo’d at the rush-soaring take-off of one of those, ‘pure clean immaculate machines,’ perfectly complemented by Scottish Opera’s scratch-perfect orchestra.
Fierce night, jagged light, pining wind, pinning us to the ground…
After the first act, a very Caledonian electric storm bursts onto the backdrop, grounding the cast for the next two acts in which the traditional raison d’etre of opera – to entertain, to provoke emotions & to inspire subconscious philosophizing – shall be played out. ‘The airport & the storm,’ de Angelis told the Mumble, ‘are like a forest that people go into, a place where transformations happen. All the characters are hoping for a new life in some ways.’ The second acts begins upon a plateaux of pathos, when minds are made to wander in the dark; a little lackluster at first, but it soon picks up & all hell breaks loose in a typical liberal pre-9-11 Airport where craziness was expected – but not encouraged – & allowed.
There’s nobody in the story whose making a short-haul, insignificant flight. An airport represents people’s dreams & hopes. You’re going there hoping for something – maybe a holiday, maybe a whole new life. Jonathan Dove
The hub-hub of an airport is perfectly suited to a traditional operatic ensemble, & the debuting SO director, Australian Stephen Barlow did a smart job of filling the physical spaces. Behind them, Andrew Riley’s set was simple yet authentic, something which the wife took a great deal of pleasure from – tho’ not so much how the opera played out in the end. After a smashing first act she thought it got a bit silly, but opera – especially one with comic pretensions – is sometimes supposed to be silly. The problem is, the modern brain is trained to place comic opera in an Italian setting at least, preferably several hundred years ago, which Flight clearly cannot. But for me, the archetypes were excellent; swap the stewards for Catholic priests, the holidaying couple for a squabbling count & contessa & we’re off… its all really rather the same. Flight could well polarize the opera lover, but if one puts one’s expectations into a tall ice-fill’d glass, along with a generous helping of pina colada, beside some exotic pool – then its all quite enjoyable, fun, & ultimately musically inspiring.
Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen
Flight will be touching down…
Glasgow’s Theatre Royal = February 17.21.24
Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre = March 01.03