Scottish Opera's new production of Smetana's underperformed opera The Two Widows has a lot going for it: delightful, relatively unfamiliar music, an attractive cast of principals, a sense of pace and occasion and a workmanlike, often amusing English translation (credited to David Pountney and Leonard Hancock) that caused plenty of audience chuckles on the second night.
The wafer-thin plot is not hard to follow and the English diction – apart from the chorus – good overall, but to make assurance doubly sure, surtitles were projected above and to either side of the stage. In the capable hands of Scottish Opera's new music director Francesco Corti, who conducted with drive and plenty of aplomb throughout (although without a baton, which was fine for the pit but now and then less happy for the stage), the musical case for The Two Widows was made. It may not be a forgotten masterpiece, but its melodic invention surprises and delights in equal measure and its orchestration is both light and evocative.
But the visual impact of co-director and designer Tobias Hoheisel's costumes and single stage setting was bizarre. The chorus in rustic reds, browns and greens clashed horribly with a large expanse of drawing room with bright green embossed wallpaper, which was only broken up by a large picture window at the back, through which we saw the countryside beyond and a deep blue cycloramic sky in the background. This picture window also served as the evening's running gag: when the two male principals moved near it, immaculate mute doubles entered behind the frame and aped their gestures, until tiring of the joke they eventually did their own thing and wandered off. (Recall the fake mirror scene in the Marx Bothers' Animal Crackers and you have it in one). This zany piece of stagecraft gave the clue to the style of Hoheisel's direction, and that of his co-director Imogen Kogge – play it for laughs. Perhaps humour was also intended in the cut of some of the costumes (particularly in the final ballgown for the 'sad' widow Anezka) and in the way the chorus moved and danced, but things hovered at times on that perilous line between the exuberant amateur village hall production and a straight professional staging. So production values were a bit of a curate's egg.
But the success of the piece depends above all on the quality and contrast in styles between the two widows themselves – one merry, one sad – and the two male principal roles: the ardent tenor Ladislav, in love with Anezka, and the comic baritone Mumlal, gamekeeper to the merry Karolina. And here, Scottish Opera delivered the goods. The stand-out vocal performance of the evening came from Jane Irwin as Anezka. She delivered a rich, unforced lyrical mezzo, always well-centred and full of vocal character. Her impassioned delivery of Anezka's big second-act aria (a Smetana version of Fiordiligi's 'Come scoglio', right down to the implacability of the sentiments she expresses) was genuinely show-stopping and I, for one, will watch her career development with interest. Contrasting with her in all the right ways was Kate Valentine as Karolina, a full head taller and a dominating presence onstage: she laughed, flirted, flounced and brought a light touch to the occasional coloratura passages that Smetana gives to his soprano lead. Her voice is on the light side but she sang with accuracy (especially in the ensemble patter passages) and grace: only now and again did the vocal line waver slightly.
As Mumtal, the comical gamekeeper, Nicholas Folwell performed well within his range and gave an excellent, assured performance. His diction and vocal timbre were excellent, the volume only tailing off towards the lower end of the part's range. That leaves David Pomeroy as Ladislav, the incompetent poacher whose only real goal in being on Karolina's estate is to be caught and taken to the drawing room where he will find his long-standing love, Anezka. Pomeroy had a light, lyrical tenor voice and used it effectively to characterise the role: there were tiny signs of strain at the top of the voice, but Pomeroy plotted the vocal line intelligently and sang with ease and assurance. In addition to this, all four principals blended highly effectively in the frequent passages of ensemble work that Smetana gives them: as a quartet, they produced a lovely sound, their individual vocal lines emerging occasionally to produce exactly the right dramatic effect.
Each of Smetana's two acts has a substantial prelude, the thematic material of which is used again ingeniously as the acts progress. Corti gave us full-blooded orchestral playing and produced from the Orchestra of Scottish Opera an attractively vibrant sound, woodwind to the fore and horns well focused. But the piece has a structural problem that is hard for anyone to resolve: the first act is charming, witty and well-balanced, and the plot moves on nicely to the point where Ladislav is 'imprisoned' in the house, near Anezka, which is exactly where he wants to be. The second act then goes nowhere: all Smetana can do is to postpone the denouement (Anezka seeing sense and accepting Ladislav as her new man after all) with a series of interpolated arias and duets about nothing much in particular. This introduces us to the sub-principals, Rebecca Ryan and Ben Johnson as Lidka and Tonik, who sing of the joys of young love, scold Mumtal the gamekeeper for spying on them in the woods and generally take up fifteen minutes' worth of proceedings. And Mumtal himself is given a (slightly tedious) patter song. But the whole momentum of the opera flags, the strands only coming together again when Karolina and Anezka have their final confrontation over the only man to have stepped into their lives, Ladislav, which is nicely resolved in Anezka's favour. Kate Valentine's onstage demeanour in the finale indicated that she would not be far behind in getting herself a new man – 'Remember, I am an Amazon' was one of her earlier lines that drew a big laugh.
It was great to see Scottish Opera produce once again a lighthearted piece like The Two Widows - their last production of it, in the 1970s, having been directed by David Pountney. On the evidence of this occasion there are hopeful signs of decent core artistic and musical values coming to the fore, but also nagging indications - if one compares the chorus work with that of Opera North or of WNO - that the company is still not quite pulling together in the sense of an ensemble with a clear sense of its role, vocation and artistic ambitions. Is Corti the musical director to inspire the company as it goes forward? Time will tell – but in the meantime, if the spirit that went into this The Two Widows can be maintained, opera lovers in Scotland can look forward to some enjoyable evenings ahead.
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