Scottish Opera have managed to produce another underwhelming show that, though visually arresting, leaves one with more questions than answers. There are things to praise about Ashley Page’s directorial debut for Scottish Opera: his ballet background clearly has given him an intense sense of theatrical spectacle that was used to good effect. A company of eight dancers often held the attention far more than the musical drama which unfolded around them and from whom they often seemed quite separate.
Things began quite confidently. The first scene clearly established that we were in a very glamorous 1950s world. Orfeo was lamenting his lost Euridice and we found ourselves at a society funeral. Very quickly it was also established that this performance was going to rely as much on dance as it was on the singing. From within the chorus, eight dancers emerged and began a fascinating dialogue with the music. It was still clear that it was the 1950s and so it was not surprising when the goddess Amore appeared to have taken the form of Grace Kelly. Ana Quintas, making her Scottish Opera debut sounded as glam as her A-line costume. Her singing was consistent throughout the evening and consistently fabulous. The dancers disappeared whilst she told Orfeo where he could find his true love if he wanted her back. Inevitably, he set off on his quest.
It was at this point that the stage was invaded by eight red space-monsters in latex with glowing eyes on their heads. It looked as though the bar in the first Star Wars movie had suddenly decided to have a fetish night. It was quite astonishing, as was the noise of the latex creaking when they all sat down. Meanwhile, behind the space-monsters, the chorus had also reappeared and had seemingly been invited to a red and black steampunk party next door.
Had all of this conveyed something of where we were then it might have been an extraordinary coup de théâtre. As it was, it represented the plot being comprehensively lost and it was difficult to know entirely where we were supposed to be for the rest of the evening without glancing at the programme notes.
If we didn’t know quite where we were on the stage, then the same could also be said of the orchestra down in the pit. It was hard to know whether the conductor Kenneth Montgomery was aiming for an original instruments kind of sound or something full-on and modern. A thin overture was not particularly enhanced by a pair of natural trumpets fluffing their way alongside a modern pair of horns. Although things improved after a while there was never a great deal of excitement. A small off-stage ensemble did provide an interesting echo effect and some lovely playing. The most beautiful music though being the full version of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits. Wisely, the choice had been made to include this from Gluck’s Paris 1774 version of the piece even though most of what was presented was from his earlier 1762 work. The inclusion of more ballet music offered more scope for Ashley Page to show us what he is good at, though even with this extra music it was still a fairly short evening – less than two hours, including a 20 minute interval.
Once the second half was underway and we were in Elysium, the chorus had thrown tie-died sheets over themselves and were wandering about in the manner of lime-green nuns, each wearing a headdress of flowers as though on their way to their final profession of their vows. At last, Orfeo found his Euridice who was hiding under a red polka-dot burka.
Though it made little sense, the production was incredibly visually striking. The ballet duets that were danced here in Elysium were utterly beautiful, even if they were, at times, dancing around lime-green nuns. Amidst all this there was some singing though it was fairly obvious that this was not the focus of the evening.
Orfeo himself was sung by Caitlin Hulcup. Her voice was a voice of two halves, however, the upper register being much more lyrically arresting than the lower voice. Her singing was never anything less than competent but there was no real passion anywhere and little to get excited about. The same was true for Lucy Hall. She was making her Scottish Opera debut and sang well enough, and if well enough is what Scottish Opera are aiming for them, all was well. The reappearance of Ana Quintas’s Amore only highlighted that she was singing everyone else off the stage.
My Italian companion for the evening did remark on the crisp and flawless Italian pronunciation from everyone on stage, so congratulations are in order on that front to everyone, including the voice coaches.
Sadly, the designer Johan Engels didn’t live to see the production. A sparse set consisted of a large acrylic box dominating the stage on a revolve. It presented the usual lighting problems that large, revolving, reflective boxes always do in opera productions and lighting superviser Robin B Dickson never entirely managed to stop random lights flashing in the audience’s eyes nor the ghostly appearance of the conductor in the middle of the stage.
In summary then, we had an underwhelming evening of reasonably pleasant music, though the dance was considerably more interesting than anything that was sung. It is difficult to credit that this is one of Scottish Opera’s few main stage performances this year. It will run only in Glasgow and Edinburgh and for only 7 nights in total. It is becoming difficult not to wonder what this company gets up to when it isn’t putting on its occasional performances
(Photos : KK Dundas)