Scottish Opera's 2016/17 mainstage season opened with a revival of Sir Thomas Allen's excellent production of The Marriage of Figaro, first mounted in 2010. This was followed by the company's first Philip Glass production, his adaptation of Kafka's The Trial. The other new stagings included Pelléas et Mélisande, which the company had not mounted in forty years. Duke Bluebeard's Castle appeared in tandem with a new piece by composer-in-residence Lliam Paterson, The 8th Door. The last new production, La bohème, promised an interesting update to the between the wars era. The medium scale work, touring smaller venues in the autumn, was a new treatment of The Elixir of Love.
For several seasons, Scottish Opera presented a series of concerts on a Sunday afternoon, using the company's orchestra and chorus. Usually the programmes were symphonic, though there was later a move towards the more appropriate format of employing a star singer in a series of extracts and arias, as well as non-operatic songs.
For the season 2016/17, the company adopted a far more enterprising policy - the use of one-off concert performances to introduce to Scottish audiences works that are scarcely known in these parts. The season kicked off with the second of Mascagni's operas to be produced, L'amico Fritz, a piece that could hardly be more of a contrast to its hot-blooded and tragic predecessor, Cavalleria Rusticana. The series continued with Debussy's early cantata L'enfant prodigue, which was eventually staged shortly before World War One.
Rossini was represented by his delightful early farce The Silken Ladder. This was the only one of the four the company had tackled previously, though it was a long time ago. The final work is a real rarity, Puccini's first opera, Le villi, which has not been heard in Scotland before.
Rossini's Silken Ladder is one of the best of a series of five delightful short farces he composed at the start of his career. Its overture always seems to have been popular, but the whole work is a charming little comedy that repays attention in its own right. Its only previous appearance with Scottish Opera, thirty-odd years ago, was billed as a medium-scale tour, though it was pretty much what Rossini would have recognized from the little Venice theatre of its premiere. That staging was an early opportunity for young Graham Vick to direct something interesting.
Of the four unusual works given in Glasgow on Sunday afternoons, the Rossini was the only one to be seen elsewhere. It received a second performance between the Thursday and Saturday evening Edinburgh viewings of the Paterson/Bartók double bill. However instead of doing the obvious by giving it at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, the company took the opportunity to pay a brief visit to Perth's concert hall, where the intimate nature of the piece succeeded extremely well. While officially only a concert, in Italian with English supertitles, the climactic elements of bedroom farce encouraged the use of some props - a screen on either side of the playing area with an armchair off-centre. This therefore became a semi-staged performance with much use of hiding places. The singers all had their roles confidently by heart and essentially gave a full staging, but for the everyday dress they wore. The audience lapped it up.
Conductor David Parry has an excellent record for resurrecting unknown operas of the bel canto era, both in the theatre and on disc. He had previously only worked with Scottish Opera on the last run of Carmen. However when the programme for 2017/18 was announced a couple of days before the Perth visit he was seen to be listed for the autumn revival of Traviata. If that means a relationship with the company is developing, then it bodes well, as his handling of the Rossini brought out some lovely detail in the bubbly woodwind writing.
Jennifer France has already shown her quality as a singing actress in Handel and Mozart with Scottish Opera. She made a charming Giulia, coping confidently with the coloratura elements and pinging out some beautiful high notes. Luciano Botelho was making his debut with Scottish Opera, but made an excellent impression in ETO's Anna Bolena at the Perth Festival and has since had some major appearances to his credit, including Covent Garden. Dorvil is a relatively short role, but he made the most of his opportunities.
Nicholas Lester earlier this season sang the lead in The Trial by Philip Glass for Scottish Opera and has appeared in Perth in several major parts with English Touring Opera, including, most recently, the title role in Don Giovanni. Germano is a character who interestingly combines the comic and the serious, and whose misunderstandings bring about the comic climax. He threw off his big solo in the second act with aplomb. Given his unusual height, the two screens would not have hidden him easily, but he was able to cower behind the armchair from which position his comments came over clearly.
The Australian bass-baritone Joshua Bloom was an unknown quantity here, but has already worked extensively with ENO, Australian companies and at the New York Met. That last venue requires big voices, and his is an astonishing instrument, with an effortless production. He threw himself enthusiastically into the enterprise and will be very welcome to return if the company can get him. The two shorter roles of Giulia's cousin Lucilla and their guardian Dormont were also given lively and beautifully sung performances by Katie Bray and Christopher Turner.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, with perhaps one quibble. While it is in two acts, they are short, and last time Scottish Opera presented the piece, in 1984/85, it was played all through in one go. That disguised the fact that the first act is actually less brilliant musically than the second, which is top-notch Rossini all the way through. Could they have begun the evening by unearthing another short rarity of some kind?
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