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Reduced to four productions per season, Scottish Opera’s choices are unenviable. As a subsidised company it can’t just do Tosca and La traviata; but if it is to go beyond the “popular” without depleting its audience, it needs to choose carefully. Better to follow the ensemble principle – establish the resources, then see what is possible – than choose an opera and see if it can be cast.
But Scottish Opera has taken the latter route. Tamerlano, the fruit of Handel’s golden period in the 1720s, demands great voices. Failing those it needs a compelling sense of theatre. This dreary show lacks both.
The company was clearly hoping to repeat its success two years ago with Semele, also staged by John La Bouchardière and conducted by Christian Curnyn. But the scenario of Tamerlano is more static and the music more dramatic. La Bouchardière tries to turn it into a time-travelling allegory about dictatorship, with decor and costumes (Gideon Davey) that range from ancient Babylonian artifacts to machine guns and suits. There’s an air of flippancy that undermines the work’s tragic thrust. Much of the iconography, including a Union flag, is a smokescreen for La Bouchardière’s failure to direct his singers. Curnyn, preoccupied with neatness, offers no compensating vitality.
The classiest performer is Jennifer Johnston: what a pity that, as Irene, she has little to sing, for this gorgeous mezzo has stage presence, a vibrant top, a sense of style. The two counter-tenors are ciphers – hard to believe Handel wrote Andronico for Senesino – but Gail Pearson makes a sweet Asteria; and as Bajazet, Handel’s greatest tenor role, Tom Randle injects some intensity.
I wonder if Scottish Opera realises how urgent its plight is. It’s time to jettison “international” pretensions, develop a nucleus of artists its audience can identify with and call on internationally experienced Scots to shore up standards. I’ll start the roll-call: Douglas Boyd, Paul Curran, Frances McCafferty, Marie McLaughlin, Iain Paton and yes, Donald Runnicles.
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