How can you begin to measure the outrage on discovering that your friend has received an identical love letter to the one you have just opened? This amusing vignette from Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor was one of the many aspects of love in opera explored in Scottish Opera’s fine spring touring entertainment, Opera Highlights, or as the billboard onstage would have it, Cirque des Chansons.

Paul Curievici, Sarah Power, Andrew McTaggart and Máire Flavin © Colin Hattersley
Paul Curievici, Sarah Power, Andrew McTaggart and Máire Flavin
© Colin Hattersley

Scottish Opera has a commendable history of packing up a van in Glasgow and taking it round the far corners of Scotland to the delight of local communities. This show, seen here at its halfway point, covers 18 performances in six weeks from Skye to Dalbeattie, in venues as tiny as Midmar Village Hall in Aberdeenshire to the brand new theatre in Kirkwall in Orkney. The difference these days is in the appointment of Emerging Artists, so baritone Andrew McTaggart, soprano Sarah Power and director Lissa Lorenzo were all given an opportunity to further develop their already considerable skills. Joined by Irish mezzo-soprano Máire Flavin, tenor Paul Curievici and accompanied by Ruth Wilkinson on the piano, we were taken on a whirlwind operatic tour of love’s many different sides.

The small set, consisting of a few painted boxes, garden trellis and a doorway festooned with brightly coloured ribbon, was a versatile backdrop to the singers, who probably had to work harder here than in a conventional single opera. The thrill of hearing even one large operatic voice up close is exciting, and here four evenly matched voices produced a tremendous sound in the hall, although at times there was so much volume that clarity of diction suffered occasionally.

Well known favourites from Rigoletto, Faust, La bohème, and Così fan tutte were interspersed with less familiar numbers from Jonathan Dove and Richard Heuberger. It was particularly interesting to compare two Musetta waltzes, Puccini’s performed with appropriate “bad girl” delight by Sarah Power and Leoncavallo’s more sinuous approach in a powerful performance by Máire Flavin.

Haydn wrote 12 operas, which perhaps deserve greater recognition as this extract from L’isola disabitata was especially enjoyable as two pairs of lovers found happiness on a deserted island. In darker scenes, Andrew McTaggart was an infatuated menacing Tarquinius, and Sarah Power a moving Manon, addressing a well-loved table in her apartment as she decides what to do next.

Paul Curievici and Andrew McTaggart © Colin Hattersley
Paul Curievici and Andrew McTaggart
© Colin Hattersley

The unexpected highlight of the evening was a very new piece from Scottish Opera’s composer in residence, Gareth Williams. Working with Scottish Opera and Glasgow’s Gartnaval Hospital, he has been examining whether cystic fibrosis sufferers' wellbeing can be helped by singing techniques. Until the Glass Shatters was a devastating, beautiful and haunting piece written for this tour for a trio of singers, tuned wine glass and piano. In three phases of a lung transplant operation (waiting, the operation and recovery), each singer takes a stage and voices hopes and fears, the ethereal sound of the glass underlining the life-changing event, held in balance by the medical team. This patient wakened to celebrate the simplicity of being able to take a deep breath in, then a deep breath out, the piece culminating in a series of shattering shouts of life-affirming joy.

“The Saga of Jenny” from Weill’s Lady in the Dark ended the evening with this boisterous cautionary tale. Although created by young 'trainees', this was certainly no apprentice show, as the whole team worked together to successfully string an unlikely medley of opera highlights into a very respectable whole, helped by simple, effective stage directions and excellent accompaniment from musical director Ruth Wilkinson.

Should an opera company spend its budget on mainstage productions, or should it be smaller scale fare like this? While big productions undoubtedly catch the international limelight, there is no denying the impact of Scottish Opera arriving in a tiny community, miles from the bigger theatres, and putting on such a professional show.