Passion Play: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s Tosca…

Every so often you go to an event where the excitement and anticipation among the audience beforehand is palpable, and that was the case at the opening night of Scottish Opera’s Tosca at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. You could feel it building in the walk up to the doors and by the time the curtain was raised the atmosphere was electric. With such anticipation this Tosca had a lot to live up to but luckily for all of us it managed to and so much more.

The stage in Act One was set in the Roman church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, and it reflected the wealth of the church itself – using marble greys, sepia, and burnished gold as its main colour palette, every so often given a splash of colour of white and papal purple by visiting cardinals, priests, choirboys, and cross-bearers, as well as the yellow and red of the Swiss Guard. It was an imposing set, made more atmospheric by the way the stage was lit from the side rather than from above, the long shadows cast adding to the sense of foreboding that something wicked was on its way.

That something wicked came in the form of Baron Scarpia, the Chief of Police who is determined to steal famed singer Tosca from the arms of her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, by any means necessary. Played with a real sense of menace by Roland Wood in the finest tradition of the theatrical villain (and proving the adage that “the devil has all the best tunes”), he and his gang of fascisti followers strode the stage as if they owned it. However, even for them there is increasingly the sense that this tale is not going to end well, something only strengthened by the brief appearance of Il Duce himself, Benito Mussolini.

By this point we had already witnessed the depth of feeling that Tosca and Cavaradossi have for each other, with Natalya Romaniw and Gwyn Hughes Jones being at times loving, passionate, playful, jealous, and everything in-between as their love is threatened by circumstances as well as Scarpia’s evil intent. As events unfold they reveal just how far they are prepared to go for each other, and what they believe in. These two characters have the most to suffer, and Romaniw in-particular expressed the highs and lows of being in love in a manner which at times was almost unbearably moving. Hers is a Tosca to whom others will aspire.

This is an especially cinematic production, with a distinct style to each act. Act One had the look and feel of Derek Jarman, with religious iconography and sensuality interweaving, and the passion of the artist to the fore. Act Two had more than a hint of Martin Scorsese, with corruption, violence, and betrayal, looked at with an unflinching and often brutal eye. Act Three, with the stage dominated by a huge statue of an angel at Castel Sant’Angelo, was Wim Wenders meets Powell and Pressburger – the perfect setting for the fatal final acts. Whether you know the story of Tosca or not the end still has the power to move and shock, something which is a testament to everyone involved.

This Tosca is a production to get lost in, to be overcome by and surrender to – resistance is futile. Often with longer pieces of theatre you are aware of audience members checking their watches or shifting in their seats. I didn’t witness one example of this on the night as the audience was rapt from beginning to end, completely absorbed by what was unfolding on stage. If that sounds like something you would like to witness for yourself then you can do so in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, and Edinburgh. If it doesn’t, then go to the top of the page and start reading again. I’m sure you’ll change your mind.

That’s Entertainment: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s The Magic Flute…

Few operas have found their way into popular culture in the manner of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. From Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of Papageno’s bird catcher for the character Old Bailey in his novel Neverwhere, Whitney Houston claiming she is the ‘Queen of the Night’ in the movie The Bodyguard, and with music which has been used to sell everything from cars to contraception, it’s influence has spread far and wide. This is something which Scottish Opera’s revival of their 2012 production plays with beautifully.

It embraces the aesthetic of steampunk fully. If you know the graphic novels of Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or films such as Brazil, Howl’s Moving Castle, or the recent Mortal Engines, you’ll have some idea of the look and feel. In fact the wizard Sarastro can be described as a mix of The Matrix’s Morpheus and Kenneth Branagh’s Dr. Arliss Loveless from the otherwise forgettable Wild Wild West.

Throw in minions who seem to be a marriage of Disney’s Minions & Tik Tok from Return To Oz, a dragon which is more H.G. Wells than Game Of Thrones, and strange men in top hats who watch over proceedings, and it’s clear that everyone has risen to the challenge to offer up a production which is as much a treat for the eyes as for the ears. Those involved with stage, costume, lighting and props should take a well-deserved bow.

But for all the magic and magnificence of the staging what runs through this production is heart, humanity and humour. Central to this is Richard Burkhard’s Papageno who represents the everyman, the link between the audience and the stage, (the ‘Buttons’ character, so to speak – see more below), whose mistakes and mishaps are all too recognisable, and who reminds us that while not everyone can be a hero, they still deserve love.

There is more than a touch of pantomime about The Magic Flute with a prince and a princess, a wicked Queen, slapstick and farce, playing to the gallery, and (*Spoiler*) happy endings for most by the time the curtain falls. As such it is easy to explain its continued popularity, regarded by many as the opera for all the family, and there is an excellent piece in the programme by Paul Maloney which sets out the influence on vaudeville and music hall.

If you’ve been looking to introduce someone to the joys of opera, then Scottish Opera’s The Magic Flute is the perfect choice. If that someone is you, then why not give it a chance. I guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Thanks to Scottish Opera for use of the following images:
Credit – James Glossop

Tour Dates:

Theatre Royal – GLASGOW Tue 14 May to Sat 18 May BOOK TICKETS

Eden Court – INVERNESS Tue 21 May to Sat 25 May BOOK TICKETS

His Majesty’s Theatre – ABERDEEN Thu 30 May – Sat 1 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Festival Theatre – EDINBURGH Wed 5 Jun to Sat 15 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Hackney Empire – LONDON Thu 20 Jun to Sat 22 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Belfast Grand Opera House – BELFAST Thu 27 Jun – Sat 29 Jun BOOK TICKETS

On The Level: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s Katya Kabanova…

Sometimes you leave a theatre knowing that what you have just witnessed was something special. That was undoubtedly the case with Scottish Opera’s opening night of Janáček’s Katya Kabanova. It’s one of those rare productions where everything comes together to make something magical. The score, the story, the musicians, the singing, the acting (often overlooked in opera), the lighting, the costumes, and the set (& boy, what a set!) were all in complete and wonderful harmony to create a world so enthralling that to witness it felt a privilege.

Does that sound over the top? I urge you to go and see for yourself and tell me I’m wrong – and you should as it’s an experience to be shared as widely as possible. Let me try and break it down further, for my own benefit as much as for yourself. First, the story. Although I write about and review Scottish writing on this site my first loves are the 19th century Russians, and although Janáček is Czech, Katya Kabanova is planted firmly in Mother Russia.

If you know the works of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, (or if you have seen the Woody Allen film Love & Death), you’ll be familiar with the themes of unrequited or thwarted love leading to tragedy, existential crisis, familial machinations (mothers-in-laws often get a bad press) and the fickle and often infuriating nature of man. New industry is often in conflict with the old, and new values also challenge the status quo. Katya Kabanova captures all of this completely. There are even fields of wheat on stage – a recurring and significant image in Russian literature – and like those classic novels Janáček, and Scottish Opera, have created a world in which to immerse yourself.

If I was to say that this is an opera which works on many levels then I mean you to take that metaphorically, but also literally. The set is dominated by a two-way bridge which moves and morphs throughout, not unlike an Escher picture brought to life. If there were ever a theatre adaptation of Iain Banks’ novel The Bridge then they need look no further for inspiration for the centre piece. Reminiscent of H.R. Giger’s drawings for the Nostromo spaceship in the first Alien movie, with the same heft and otherworldliness, it made me think of the theatre of Robert LePage and I can give no higher praise than that.

Beneath the bridge are the marshlands and mud-fields where the hard work is done, assignations are made, and people come to lose themselves while those higher up go busily about their day and are usually too busy to notice what is beneath them. Visually, when put together, it’s an incredible achievement, so much so that at times you could forget that what you are watching is not on a screen but on stage. This is opera as spectacle, but it never threatens to overshadow the characters and performers. Indeed, it seems to bring out the best in them.

Although the leads were superb, especially Laura Wilde as Kátya Kabanová and Patricia Bardon as Kabanicha, this was an ensemble piece as every member of cast played their role, and when married to the music what was created was an all-out assault on the senses in the best possible way. When a particular dramatic event happened near the end there was a collective intake of breath from an audience who were rapt throughout.

All of the above is really just a long and detailed way of saying that this is a production not to miss. It is another example of Scottish Opera being a company to treasure as whether it’s their Opera Highlights show in Victoria Hall in Dunblane (as they are tonight) or something with the scale and ambition of Kátya Kabanová they always deliver. Scottish Opera are at the top of their game right now, and we should be thankful for that.

Thanks to Scottish Opera for the use of these images – Credit James Glossop

Tsars On Sunday: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s From Russia With Love…

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As Boney M once exclaimed, “Oh those Russians”! Although this is Scots Whay Hae! my first literary loves are 19th century Russian writers, and I am a little obsessed with the culture of that place and time. This being the case, Scottish Opera and the National Opera Studio’s From Russia With Love, the latest of The Sunday Series of concerts. With libretti adapted from writers such as Pushkin and Gogol, and music from Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky, it was the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The Prelude to ‘The Golden Cockerel’ set the tone with a caricatured Donald Trump, in the exagerated style of Terry Gilliam, on stage lending things a modern and satirical twist, something which carried on throughout. There were visceral scenes of torture reminiscent of a scene from Reservoir Dogs (‘Kashchey The Immortal’), references to #MeToo (‘The Bear’), and demonic possession in the style of the Ringu films, or even The Exorcist (‘Khovanshchina’). You may have an idea of what opera is, but Scottish Opera make you think again, regularly proving that they are one of the most innovative and impressive companies around. Continue reading

Judge Dread: A Review Of Philip Glass’s The Trial…

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It’s difficult to think of a more apt time for Philip Glass’s take on Franz Kafka’s infamous 1925 novel The Trial to arrive in theatres. When a new American President is promising to refill Guantanamo Bay with inmates based on who they are rather than what they’ve done, the story of Josef K, a man who is arrested on his 30th birthday for a never specified crime, is one which carries a warning which will already be too late for some.

Glass’s ‘Trial’ is a co-production between Scottish Opera, Music Theatre Wales, The Royal Opera and Theater Magdeburg, and it is a great advert for European cultural collaboration. It opens in Josef K’s bedroom, a sparse set which will be subtly and inventively used throughout. Josef is awoken by two agents who appear to be the evil doppelgängers of Herge’s Thompson Twins from the Tintin books, with their bowler hats and wry moustaches. They are here to arrest him, but cannot tell him what for or who has accused him, something that Josef, after initial shock, takes lightly at first. But as the year unfolds, and his ‘trial’ begins, the seriousness of his situation begins to dawn. Is he an innocent man? Kafka asks which one of us can honestly claim to be, and that is part of the terror of this tale. Continue reading