Hurrah for Scotland’s opera planners, for whether by accident or design they have given us three wonderful French operas staged in Glasgow in March, each telling the story of a different pair of doomed lovers. Starting just across the road at Theatre Royal with Scottish Opera’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and now continuing at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire’s opera school studio space we were treated to strikingly original interpretations of operatic favourites Orpheus and Eurydice, and then Tristan and Isolde. For those attending all three operas, it has been a delightful journey, a heady French mix of the familiar coupled with the surprise of these two rare operatic gems.
Darius Milhaud composed Les Malheurs d’Orphée as a commission from Winnaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress and patron of the arts in Paris. Milhaud had spent time in Brazil as Secretary to the French Ambassador, picking up South American musical idioms as well as ‘authentic jazz’ from a visit to Harlem, reflected in the complex music set for a small chamber orchestra. Simon Proust, studying on the Leverhulme Conducting Fellowship Programme, encouraged sprightly energetic performances from his band, musically nodding to Poulenc with Stravinsky’s bite and some rattling Rio rhythms. The story in Armaud Lunel’s libretto is spare and only patchily related to the traditional: Orphée, a Camargue peasant and healer, and Eurydice, a gypsy stranger, are warned by local artisans that marrying outside their community is ill-advised. Nevertheless, they elope to live in the forest. Eurydice becomes ill and dies, but her three sisters track Orphée back to the Camargue plains, blaming him for Eurydice’s death and seeking vengeance.
Russian baritone Alexey Gusev was gloriously rich-voiced in the central role of Orphée supported by soprano Anne-Marie Loveday’s tragic Eurydice, trios of artisans, animals and vengeful sisters in funeral black bearing scissors and a whip. Set in three short acts, the piece is a study in economy, yet there were some memorable moments as when the lamenting animals bear Eurydice’s body off in funeral procession. Directed with a light touch by Kally Lloyd Jones, peasant clothing and effectively minimal props from designer Janis Hart, the musical energy somehow only amplified the lovers’ fatal devotion.
Le Vin herbé by Swiss born Frank Martin is perhaps more an oratorio than opera, telling the complete tale of Tristan and Isolde, like Wagner in three acts, but there any similarity ends. Just twelve singers and a small string orchestra with piano generate an utterly compelling experience of unsettling intensity and emotion. Conductor Timothy Dean brought a whole range of a musical tapestry of colours to life from the players, making twelve note sequences enchanting and beautiful, fearfully dramatic moments with stabbing downbows, and then suddenly a haunting shattering viola solo emerging.
The singers are onstage throughout, singing directly to as a chorus but taking individual parts in the story. Janis Hart keeps it very simple with twelve wooden cubed boxes for the singers dressed in muted coloured shawls with a furl of white sail above. Standing on a box being a tree, then finding your sea legs in a boat in the choppy Irish sea has a primary school drama appeal, yet Kally Lloyd Jones knows how just the right amount of movement, a tiny shake of a costume for a zephyr, the casual turn of a palm outwards adds to the drama. The boat journeys were a highlight, Iseut la Blonde like a living figurehead in the prow, her clothes flapping in the breeze. Davy Cunningham’s lighting added to the atmosphere, the forest of raised hands for the briars that intertwine the lovers’ adjacent graves deeply moving.
The concentration required by the singers for this almost continuous work of around 90 minutes was immense, the blended choral singing in the studio space enormously powerful. Soprano Julia Daramy-Williams, a proud Iseut la Blonde, fatefully downing the spiked wine with David Horton’s muscular Tristan, were a well matched pair of lovers, each taking extended solos. They were supported by a strong ensemble of characters who told the solemn story clearly with superb French diction. Music, singing and particularly movement came together beautifully to create an impassioned moving piece, so it is difficult to understand why this work is so seldom heard in the opera house.
The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has just this week been ranked in the top three places in the world to study the performing arts. The quality and attention to detail of its opera productions certainly supports this accolade.
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