Sunday 3 May 2009

Scottish Opera's 2009/10 'season' (and a rather longer rant)

Regular readers may wonder why, given I review a fair bit of opera, I've never reviewed a Scottish Opera production (well, aside from this piece, part of the roundup of the 2005 festival, which predates the side, and briefly covers Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer). As it turns out, the answer is pretty simple: I haven't been to a Scottish Opera production in nearly three years. That, in turn, is because the last thing I saw was truly terribly awful. (Before going further, I should note that most of this post is an extended rant, and if you just want my feelings on the actual content of the season you should skip to the penultimate paragraph.)

Of course, if I stopped going to a company because of one bad production, or performance, I'd have nothing to do of an evening, and these pages would be fairly quiet. With Scottish Opera it was a little different and, in a sense, I just found it depressing. My introduction to the company (I haven't lived here my whole life), was also in many ways its swan song: the glorious Ring Cycle of 2003, which I probably should write about in detail one day. It may not have been vocally perfect, and certainly they didn't do the Rheingold anvils justice, but it was nonetheless among the finest operatic experience I've enjoyed and Albery's production was superb. Sadly, it basically bankrupted the company. This led to the dark year, the axing of the chorus and the freelancing of the orchestra. Music director Richard Armstrong also departed and stop fell vacant for several years (there was then a botched attempt to replace him with someone who couldn't do it, before finally Corti was brought in - it was little wonder it took them so long to find someone, who'd want to take on such a poisoned chalice?). To suggest all this had a destructive effect on the company would be an understatement.

It's also the case that the most compelling year of opera I've had since moving here was that dark year when we got both Welsh National Opera (with a solid Don Carlos) and Glyndebourne Touring Opera visiting. I've argued elsewhere, and made myself very unpopular by doing so, that hiring them, and others such as Opera North, would be a far more effective use of the money. That's not that I'm against Scotland having an opera company. I want there to be one, I just want a decent one, and I think if the one we've got is all we're going to get, I can't see the point: I'd rather get my opera fixes elsewhere. If the SNP is really serious about independence they need to look to cultural independence and tackle this. Of course, it might be different if the company nurtured young Scottish talent. But it doesn't, not really. Productions too often seemed filled with unremarkable European singers.

On top of all this, the 2006 Don Giovanni was something of a last straw. This despite recombining the Armstrong/Albery dream team. Musically lacklustre and with an insane production to boot (scenes illuminated so that audience members required night vision goggles, the Don's habit of discarding pair upon pair of white gloves, and, frankly, the less said about how pathetically he was dragged down to hell the better - that scene shouldn't be comical). At the same time, I was finding myself in London more often, and spending my money on ENO and Covent Garden was just infinitely more appealing.

I took a good look at the 2008/9 brochure, but mainly it annoyed me. I disliked the creative accounting of calling the Edinburgh Festival production part of the season to boost the production count: you don't see their festival appearances in the orchestra's season brochures. Festival isn't season. Period. Even if one counts this, and the Five:15 project that only gives six staged productions. Last season Opera North managed nine. Add to that a parade of little known conductors and singers and it's hard to see why my opera money should go here rather than trips south to hear Mackerras conduct and Keenlyside sing. Oh, and then there's the price: £14 is the cheapest seat in the Festival Theatre. Come again! Last year, and indeed next, you could get into every production at the Royal Opera House for under £10; okay, to stand, but the point remains that you should not be able to see a better company with better singers and better conductors more cheaply. It should be noted, too, that there are only a handful of those £14 seats, most of the back of the upper circle was £26. (There are some cheaper day seats, but for those of us who have jobs and can't just turn up and queue, they aren't really applicable.)

As such, the announcement of the 2009/10 season is, unlike for Scotland's orchestras, not something I've been sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for and not something I'm especially excited about now it's here. Before I get to discuss it, I have to have another rant. Scottish Opera follow the infuriating current fashion of putting up an overly elaborate online version. Why can people not just stick a PDF up for download - it really isn't hard, I can turn any file into a PDF in about ten seconds on my Mac. You can download an offline version, but it's just as annoying to use. Instead, I suggest selecting the print option (and save the result as a PDF file - this may only work on a Mac). What's really annoying, is that they are probably wasting much need money on these versions.

The number of productions is similarly unimpressive. Even less than last year, indeed, since the Edinburgh festival has, for the second year in three, excluded Scottish Opera (something that, for the reasons I've outlined, doesn't surprise me at all). Scottish Opera general director Alex Reedijk has moaned about this to The Stage. If it was producing world class work (as Scotland's orchestras do) and got left out, there would be outcry, that there was none is telling. One thing that catches the eye, as a Janacek fan, is Kata Kabanova. Sadly, this is a touring production and does not make it to Edinburgh. Of the things that do, only one stands out: also by Janacek, we get the rarely performed The Adventures of Mr Broucek (which I've always before seen translated as Excursions). Giving hope, this is a co-production with Opera North and John Graham Hall stars in the title roll. Elsewhere we get La boheme, Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers (a new co-production with New Zealand Opera) and Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, none of which really excite me at all. Casts and conductors are similarly unimpressive. Still, one must see out of four isn't too bad, I've never had a chance to see Broucek before and very much want to. Indeed, it's an infinite improvement over last year, but that isn't saying too much. Of course, I may well be in a minority on this, but that's what the comments are for. Ticket prices are not announced.

I'm sorry to be so gloomy. I'd love to write about a wonderfully exciting season. Unfortunately, for that to happen, they need to produce one. I know that the recent McVicar Cosi has been getting rave reviews, but I probably won't see that since it's on the week I'm away for Aldeburgh (I find the fact they're in town for such brief periods quite frustrating too, but best not to start off on another rant.)

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