Last, but most certainly not least, among Scotland's three main orchestras, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra opened their season on Thursday and Friday with concert performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni. They had also chosen the occasion to pay tribute to their conductor laureate Sir Charles Mackerras. It was a fitting choice. Within the significant chunk of his epic discography featuring the SCO, which includes cycles of Brahms and Beethoven symphonies, two fine braces of late Mozart symphonies, some stunning Schubert, Mozart concerti with Brendel, and much more besides, by far the largest single chunk is occupied by his survey of Mozart's major operas. Between 1991 and 2005 they recorded all the Da Ponte operas (including both the Prague and Vienna versions of Don Giovanni) as well as Die Zauberflöte, Idomeneo, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and finally La clemenza di Tito. Picking through the various sets, which were often made in the run up to concert performances at the Edinburgh International Festival, reveals am impressive list of singers. In short, it would be difficult to deliberately programme a more fitting tribute to this great artistic partnership.
If Robin Ticciati, who has recently extended his contract with the SCO, was awed by stepping into these vast shoes, it was not apparent. He kept up a brisk pace, and yet it was not overly hurried (as, say, Daniel Harding's recording with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is). The playing of the orchestra was impeccable. Indeed, in a way it was almost invisible. That is not meant as a criticism, rather to say that the playing never upstaged the drama as a whole, not even the flamboyant David Watkin, once again doubling up very well on cello continuo; instead it was merely there, beautifully, in the background, supporting the overall drama perfectly. Indeed, so uniformly fine was it that, despite looking out for any exceptional flashes to single out, I found none, often a mark of an exceptional performance. Ticciati showed his pedigree with Glydnebourne Touring Opera, both in the emotion and humour he found, and also with his generally sensitive accompaniment of the singers.
Among a strong cast, Kate Royal stood out as with a moving and well acted Donna Elvira, so too Rafal Siwek's powerful Commendatore. Susan Gritton's Donna Anna, though nicely sung, wasn't quite in the same league. In the title role, Florian Boesch was generally excellent but at some of Ticciati's brisker tempi he lost his diction (especially during the champagne aria). I always feel Don Ottavio is a rather wet and thankless role, but Maximilian Schmitt turned in as persuasive a performance as I've heard. Vito Priante made for a fine Leporello, nicely capturing the oscillation between being pressed unwillingly into service and abetting the Don. Malin Christensson's beguiling Zerlina and David Soar's largely (and justifiably) dour Masetto rounded off the cast.
Though having a minimal role, a handful of scenes as peasants in act one followed by some demons at the close of the opera, the SCO Chorus got to enjoy a perfect view of some fine music making, occasionally rising to add finely coloured icing to the cake.
Set again this, what niggles there were were minor, yet they were largely needless and avoidable, and rather more plentiful than should have been the case. I feel opera in concert works best when some form of semi-staging is attempted, i.e. that the cast do more than simply stand and deliver their parts. In fairness there was a reasonable degree of this, but it was a little sporadic. On the one hand, Priante made good use of his score as a prop as he enumerated the Don's conquests to a horrified Donna Elvira; on the other, though, when the Commendatore asked Don Giovanni to take his hand, they were on opposite sides of the stage. All too often, a member of the cast would retire to the chairs at the side of the stage when they were clearly still in the scene and being sung to; worse, they would sometimes come back on again to deliver a line or two at the end. Elsewhere, when Don Giovanni attempted to ravage Zerlina (or, rather, made one of his many attempts to ravage her), a note in the script reminded us that the action was taking place offstage. Except she was right there in front of us. Such moments were unfortunate as they unnecessarily punctured the drama.
Another minor issue was the decision to have the Commendatore amplified from off-stage in the graveyard scene. A fine idea in and of itself, it was let down by the low fidelity of the system which left the voice with a fraction of the power it displayed naturally and not the otherworldly effect that was doubtless intended.
Finally, and this no fault of the performers, there was the matter of latecomers and the floods that were admitted. Perhaps someone needs to explain to the Front of House manager at City Halls what a suitable break in the performance is, as they seemed blissfully unaware. In two tranches, the first trampling over a recitative, the second (at about 7.35, had people perhaps not noted the early start time?) spoiling Masetto and Zerlina's introduction. It was probably worse for me than most as I was on a gangway so had a slew of people clomping along the wooden aisle right in front of me. Perhaps City Halls are unused to opera, but if there isn't a suitable break, and really there wasn't, then it should just be tough luck. At the Royal Opera House, they hold all latecomers in the foyer until the interval and they have to make do with a screen. There's a very good reason why.
Yet, as I said, such details were ultimately minor, and while they curbed the drama here or provided an annoying distraction there, they did not ultimately detract seriously from three hours of beautiful music making. It is great to see the SCO restoring concert opera to their regular season; let us hope that Ticciati continues the trend. Coincidentally, the last time they opened their season this way was in 2005; then Charles Mackerras stood on the podium for Fidelio, the SCO's contributions to his 80th birthday celebrations.