Bisset, Collett, Forsyth, Grove, Lamb, Robinson, Rolph, Sinani, Tollan, Huw Williams, Scottish Opera/Clark

Òran Mór, 4 June 2010 4 stars

Martin LambFive operatic vignettes; roughly fifteen minutes a throw (and roughly fifteen musicians a show): that's the Five:15 deal from Scottish Opera that sold out both the Traverse run in Edinburgh, and the Òran Mór run in Glasgow.

Since you'd expect a mixed bag with such a venture, pairing composers and writers in (for the most part) unfamiliar combinations, maybe the most surprising thing about the evening was a certain consistency: all of the offerings were jam packed with music and non-stop action.

This is understandable, but not necessarily a good thing. In Khodosh and McLaverty's The Letter, for instance, the key idea that a mother is writing to her son was completely lost in the effort to dramatize what she is writing about—and for better or worse, opera is not a documentary medium. The scale of the horrors of wartime Ukraine sit uneasily in the space and time available, and unfortunately Khodosh's score was not strong enough to fight its corner.

In Zen Story, on the other hand, Miriams Young's score was attractively restrained with nicely judged, subtle colourations. The story, though, was startlingly naff. Alan Spence is a well-respected writer, known for his immersion in Zen, but this effort was either a fiendishly sophisticated paracommentary—a sort of Holy Willie's Zen—or else badly misjudged. Like the Khodosh, there was too much going on: the banal, soap-opera aspects of the pregnant daughter/angry father were as universally credible as the priest's serene equanimity at being falsely accused seemed wildly improbable.

Perhaps unhelpfully, two of the strongest vocal performances of the evening came from Jeremy Huw Williams as the father, in Zen Story, and as Epstein in The Letter. The Epstein character is a loathsome moral vacuum—a Jewish Nazi collaborator—which found Williams veering dangerously close to Springtime for Hitler in his characterization.

The benefit of an experienced collaborative team was evident in The Money Man, and the result was a more satisfying pacing and dramatic arc. Lyell Cresswell's score brings a characteristically lively rendering to Ron Butlin's entertaining text. The plot, though, is strangely caught between two worlds: the recent financial crash, and a more generalized Thatcher-era sentiment. It might be more fun if the social dynamics were totally inverted so that Jenna the daughter drives the plot instead of being its potential victim. It was good to see a professional female character (Arlene Rolph's journalist Laura), but the modern-day Jenna probably identifies with that career focus: Tom Masters (vividly brought to life by Martin Lamb) might end up representing old-fashioned family values despite his venal veneer!

The theatrical setup of The Money Man would be easily recognizable to traditional opera-goers, with its pair-of-couples dynamic pointed up by Butlin's colourful rhyming couplets. The remaining two works are both rather more experimental in their design. In Strachan and Fells' Sublimation, a skilfully layered text overlays a personal crisis that is at once modern and timeless with a mythical dimension which substantiates that timelessness by subtly placing it in a narrative tradition. Two women, instantly identified as sisters (Lee Bisset and Miranda Sinani), a silent boy, and a tree-nymph (choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones), build an intense psychological portrait of a rape and its consequences in an effective marriage of music and theatricality.

One thing about Nick Fells’ score, though: the electronic dimension seemed to be limited to the point that it might not have been missed if it had not been there. Perhaps the tack taken in 74° North by Pete Stollery and Paul Mealor is a more practical approach, with one handling the electoaccoustic side and the other the instrumental/vocal score.

To begin with, although Stollery's soundscape provided an effective scene-setting immersion, it took some time to bring the two characters on stage into dramatic alignment: Andrew, an arctic scientist (Jeremy Huw Williams), is retracing the 1840 Franklin expedition, following in the footsteps of John Rae, who had attempted to rescue Franklin's team. Aware that he is being 'watched', he engages in dialogue with a mysterious stranger/ghost (Alexander Grove). Gradually the score, the scenario, and some remarkable poetry by librettist Peter Davidson fused to accomplish an alchemy that lifted the concluding section onto a different plane.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Martin Lamb


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