With no visitors, strict social distancing rules and, one has to assume, a fraction of a normal year’s budget, the Edinburgh International Festival have been forced into a challenging hunt for ideas as to how to maintain the spirit of the festival with reduced means. In doing so, they’ve come across a gem in the shape of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Telephone, a short comic opera written in New York in 1947. Under the aegis of the EIF, Scottish Opera have created a new film version: it runs for about 25 minutes and it’s delightful.

Soraya Mafi (Lucy) and Jonathan McGovern (Ben) © James Glossop
Soraya Mafi (Lucy) and Jonathan McGovern (Ben)
© James Glossop

The Telephone is a two-hander: earnestly lovable Ben’s stuttering attempts at proposing marriage to flibbertigibbet Lucy are frustrated by her constantly interrupting proceedings to answer her telephone. The opera has the alternative title L’Amour à trois, the gag being that the telephone is the one rival that Ben is completely unequipped to deal with. In the end, Ben takes the only way out – but I won’t spoil the fun by revealing what that is. Menotti lights up the fun by throwing in every style of operatic set piece you can shake a stick at: there’s a rage aria, a lament, a coloratura showpiece, there are tender duets. In short, there’s never a dull moment.

This being the age of mobiles, director Daisy Evans transplants the action from Lucy’s Manhattan apartment into the bar of Edinburgh’s Kings Theatre, where Ben is dropping in before heading off to Waverley Station. The dialogue is punctuated by panels flashing up with the text messages and calendar reminders of how long Ben has left before he misses his train. The sharpness of Menotti’s humour in portraying the damnable intrusivity of the 1940s telephone (remember, only half US households had phones at this point) transfers remarkably well to our communications-overladed environment of today. Ten minutes in, we could cheerfully strangle Lucy for refusing to hit the red “Reject” button for the latest call to come in, while we groan with despair at Ben’s inability to make use of the all-too-brief few seconds between calls to pop his question. The only false note is that "don't forget my number" falls somewhat flat in the age of speed dial. Shots are neatly chosen, with enticing close-ups of cocktails being mixed by bartender Hannah Birkin (who doesn't say much but casts a plethora of knowing looks).

Jonathan McGovern gives us a velvety well-rounded baritone as Ben, Soraya Mafi glitters effortlessly as she hits the coloratura high notes and smooths out the lyrical passages delectably; the duets between the two – whether at cross purposes or romantically at one – demonstrate excellent musical rapport between the two singers. Menotti’s music is easy on the ear, with a feel of placing you somewhere in mid-Atlantic between Broadway and Italian verismo; Stuart Stratford and the Orchestra of the Scottish Opera deliver a highly enjoyable performance.

We all need a bit of cheering up in these times. EIF and Scottish Opera have achieved that with aplomb.