Saturday, 26 January 2013

RCS/Scottish Opera, 25/01/2013

Britten : A Midsummer Night's Dream

Students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Orchestra of Scottish Opera
Timothy Dean

This is the eighth year in which the RCS and Scottish Opera have collaborated on a full-scale professional production of an opera.  The bulk of the cast is comprised of current singing students at the RCS, with a few recent graduates just at the start of their professional careers, and the odd fully fledged professional.  The orchestra is mostly that of Scottish Opera, with a handful of student musicians sitting in, and the entire stage crew and organisational team comes from the RCS, but are mentored by their full-time Scottish Opera counterparts.  It's been a very successful programme, garnering much praise, and this is the first time I've had my schedule organised enough to see one of these joint efforts.

After one of the nastiest days, weather-wise, that we've suffered in recent months, I think I was hoping for a little midsummer mystery in tonight's production.  It was directed by Olivia Fuchs for the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House back in 2005, and Fuchs came to Glasgow to re-stage it for the RCS, but as far as sylvan magic goes, it was what I can only call a singularly urban production.  It was very spartan, and in modern dress, but that wasn't the problem, I've seen that before, and it can work perfectly well.  It was the neon strip-lighting everywhere, all cold and blue, and the water imagery frequently projected onto the back-drop.  I'd had enough of that outside today, thank you.  At any rate, it doesn't respond to the other-worldliness of Britten's score terribly well, though it was, fortunately, possible to simply ignore it in favour of the actual performances.

It's a good opera for young performers.  The characters themselves are generally youthful (or timeless), so a young cast works well visually.  There were some balance problems with the orchestra at times; right at the start, they were playing too loud for the fourteen child choristers, but after a little that settled down, and there were only moments when one singer or another seemed momentarily over-parted.  The orchestra on the whole, conducted by the RCS's Head of Opera, Timothy Dean, played extremely well, though from where I was sitting the two harps were occasionally a little too prominent. However, the enchantment was there from the start, with those eerie, low, string glissandi, and the chiming percussion like frost on glass.

There are three groups of voices in Dream, to match the three groups of characters.  The Immortals are high-voiced, ethereal, children for the fairies, a coloratura soprano as Tytania and a counter-tenor for Oberon.  The Athenians follow the traditional 19th Century operatic distribution; soprano, tenor, mezzo, baritone, contralto, bass.  The Rustics are rumbustious and folksy, four out of the six low-voiced, save for Snout and Flute, who's supposed to be young enough that his voice has still not quite settled into a light tenor, which is what lands him (to his visible consternation) the role of Thisby in their play for the ducal wedding festivities.

Of these three groups, the most consistently sound, and most rewarding, was certainly the last, headed by Andrew McTaggart's amiable and bumbling Bottom.  He's not quite enough of a bass-baritone for the part (and maybe I should say he's not quite enough yet), but the mid and upper parts of his voice were sure and expressive.  He played it as less of a bully than I've sometimes seen it, more over-eager, but fundamentally well-meaning, and the Act 3 monologue had a real wide-eyed charm to it.  McTaggart is one of the two members of Scottish Opera's Emerging Artists programme appearing in this show, the other is Rónan Busfield, who sang Flute.  Truth to tell, Flute's vocal line is so deliberately caricatural, it's actually difficult to identify the natural voice, and Busfield did not take advantage of Thisby's threnody to let rip (something I think was a conscious decision, though on whose part I can't tell).  However, he, like all the other Rustics, gave a characterful and very enjoyable reading,  and all six parts were well sung and acted.  I will admit to having been a bit distracted by Brian McBride's Starveling, whose character had clearly been modelled on that of Carmen Ghia from The Producers!

The Athenians were more uneven.  Best was Catriona Morison's Hermia, a warm, lyrical mezzo, with some of the clearest diction to be heard tonight, and boiling over splendidly for her fight with Helena.  Worst, unfortunately, was her love interest Lysander, Swedish tenor Andreas Backlund.  First of all, this sounded like entirely the wrong type of tenor, too dark in timbre, rather than the clear, bright sound of the typical Britten tenor.  His English needs serious work, which may have impacted negatively on his actual voice production, because he also sounded half-strangled almost all the time.  Not a particularly enjoyable experience.  I liked the quality of Dominic Barberi's voice as Theseus, but he did seem just a little under-powered.  Elfa Dröfn Stefánsdóttir, on the other hand, wasn't quite enough of a contralto for Hippolyta.  Anush Hovhannisyan and Daniel O'Connor were a decent Helena and Demetrius, if not exceptional.

Puck is a speaking role in this opera; it was intended for a dancer, it's sometimes taken by an adolescent actor or, increasingly as I've seen lately, by a circus artist of some sort.  Jami Reid-Quarrell was in the original staging of this production in London; he's one of those invaluable jack-of-all-trades you get on the West End stage, singer, dancer, aerialist, actor.  He spent much of his time in this production suspended on the corde lisse (the vertical rope), a curiously earnest, but endearing figure.  He deserved a better master than Tom Verney's Oberon, singing with a pale, colourless voice that completely drained the character of presence.

Verney was very much overshadowed by the fine Tytania of Elinor Rolfe Johnson - and yes, there's a name to conjure with, when it comes to singing Britten.  She is indeed the daughter of the late, great Anthony Rolfe Johnson, from whom she would appear to have inherited her musical affinities as well as her talent.  She negotiated the vocal ornamentation easily, but also, when the voice dropped to the lowest part of the range ("Oh, how I dote on thee", in Act 2, particularly) she retained a vibrant warmth, even a throb of seduction, with no loss of power or precision.  At once fragile and steely, this was a Tytania well worth hearing.

So, a rather prosaic production, but with enough good performances, and with an evocative orchestral contribution, to make it a worthwhile evening at the theatre.

[Next: 26th January]

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