It is always a challenge to take live opera to the places opera does not reach, and let’s face it, many people live a distance from the main performing venues. A long drive home after a three-hour opera or an overnight stay in the city weeds out all but the dedicated followers. Recent developments in cinema technology allow the Met to broadcast live relays round the world, with the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne now following suite. It has to be said that although opera at the cinema allows us to get close to the stage and singers, the audience is very much in the hands of the video director and the sound quality is only fair. The cinema operas do allow many to experience world-class productions that they would simply not be able to attend, and for a fraction of the cost. The journeys home after the performance are also much easier. Scottish Opera perform all main-house operas in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with some also going to Aberdeen and Inverness, but the sheer remoteness of the geography means that live opera and even cinema is very difficult to access for a significant number of people in Scotland.
Scottish Opera has been touring opera with a piano round the far-flung reaches of Scotland for many years, formerly as Opera-Go-Round, but interestingly now integrated into the mainstream Scottish Opera brand. The change is perhaps deliberate as it would be a mistake to rate this reduced touring production with its eight singers as second best, because this is a performance with production values treated every bit as seriously as Scottish Opera’s big shows. It was good to see the programme was every bit as comprehensive as that for the current production of The Magic Flute. When Scottish Opera brings live opera to places like Portree, St Andrews, Strathpeffer and Langholm, it is a major event and a chance for both seasoned fans and those new to opera to experience a professional show in an intimate local venue.
For the singers, a small-scale touring production is a stepping stone from smaller roles to larger ones, or for the singers fresh out of opera school, a valuable training experience. All three of Scottish Opera’s brand new Emerging Artists are involved in this tour, and half of the performers singing at the Pitlochry performance were making their debuts with Scottish Opera. For this two-month, 26-night tour of La Traviata, Violetta, Alfredo and Gastone de Letorières are understandably double-cast.
Opera stalwarts may miss the orchestra and large chorus from what is a scaled-down grand opera, but taking away these elements allows us to appreciate other aspects, and this performance certainly made up more than the difference. Director Annilese Miskimmon, soon to be artistic director of Danish National Opera, brought a production of La Traviata absolutely stuffed with fresh ideas and set in 1950s Paris, a city recovering from wartime occupation but with re-emerging artistic communities and fashion scenes. Miskimmon pulls no punches with Violetta’s fall as she is seen at the start of the opera in shadow-play during the overture accepting money for favours from the men, in Act II taking part in a seedy private filming session, and finally pregnant in a bleak hospital room being presented with x-rays of her lungs by a doctor in gown and mask.
In a cut-down production, the singers are particularly exposed, but here in a cast of no weak links, the singing and acting was generally fine and strong from everyone. Welsh singers Erin Pritchard and Robyn Lyn Evans were an affecting doomed couple, Prichard a convincing Violetta, strong yet vulnerable and ultimately paying the price for her lifestyle; Evans, in 1950s black-framed specs and suit, sensitively sung. David Stephenson, singing all performances on this tour, was particularly excellent as Germont, Alfredo’s father, here dressed as a vicar, which seemed to fit the story. Sung without surtitles in English in a translation by Edmund Tracey, diction was mostly, though not always, clear. Perhaps too, the balance in the chorus would have been improved with another female voice, as Kathryn McAdam had to work very hard to cut through four or five strong-voiced men.
A Yamaha upright piano accompanies this tour, which is a sensible decision given the variability of available local instruments, but also a challenge, as the many environments from warm hall to cooler touring van can play havoc with the tuning. A piano technician (“tuner” does not begin to cover it) called Malcolm travels with this opera, nurturing the instrument and in true touring spirit, even reportedly sleeping with it in the van. Susannah Wapshott was the pianist who accompanied the opera, and this was an astonishing performance. Playing without a page-turner and from a ring-bound score, Wapshott had a compelling, light touch and actually managed to sound like an orchestra. She was musical director too, responsible for setting the tone and pace, and from time to time would raise sometimes one hand, sometimes the other from the keys to direct the singers.
Nicky Shaw’s compact and effective pale white set, using silhouette and false perspective, was complemented with some stunning lighting from Mark Jonathan. As Violetta’s tuberculosis took hold, we increasingly saw splashes of red in the panels at the back, and at the very end, the stage was flooded with bright red light with the back doors opening to reveal red flowers from the garden of country house that Violetta and Alfredo shared in Act II.
The large audience at Pitlochry thoroughly enjoyed the evening, clearly already looking forward to next year’s visit from Scottish Opera as they made their frosty way back home to the villages and glens of Highland Perthshire.