In the space of 12 hours at the end of last week, Scottish Opera struck a high and hit rock bottom. Launching its new season with a touring version of Handel’s Rodelinda, the Glasgow-based company showed how adept it has become at presenting shoestring versions of the operatic classics, setting a high standard while presenting a mobile, up-to-date and audience-friendly image.
Directed from the harpsichord by Susannah Wapshott, one of Scottish Opera’s rising stars, the show debuted on Thursday at The Beacon, a spanking new arts centre in the Clydeside town of Greenock. Over the next six weeks Rodelinda will visit 15 outlying communities.
With applause still ringing in its ears, the company learnt the following morning that Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, the French conductor it recently appointed as music director, had pulled out. Friday’s announcement was embarrassing, not only because the withdrawal came at such short notice – he had been due to make his debut at a concert this weekend – but also because neither side would explain the rift.
Crisis is endemic to opera companies. Singers are temperamental. Money is scarce. Productions often fail to meet expectations. The whole enterprise is a rolling ball of unpredictability. But something more serious is happening north of the border.
A financial crisis in 2005 led the Scottish government to close the company for a season in 2005-6. Before that near-meltdown, artistic decision-making had been the preserve of its long-serving music director, Richard Armstrong, with successive general managers charged with making his programme viable. Since the company came back from the brink, artistic and administrative responsibilities have been lumped together in the hands of Alex Reedijk, an arts manager from New Zealand who restored stability but is not regarded as a connoisseur, and Scottish Opera finds itself desperately short of artistic leadership.
There are few tougher jobs in opera than Reedijk’s. His budget is meagre. Opera is a dead horse in Scottish political circles. Management has been distracted by a project to re-develop front-of-house facilities at the company’s Glasgow home, which will close for five months next year. So Reedijk’s policy has been to build a repertory of safe, modestly cast productions. But apart from glimpses of world-renowned director David McVicar, who won his first break with Scottish Opera in the late 1990s, the company’s record has been lacklustre. Francesco Corti, music director for the past four years, presided over a string of loud, less-than-stirring shows. Casting has been patchy. Der fliegende Holländer, this year’s Wagner bicentenary tribute, was entrusted to a director who openly scorned the composer’s philosophy of redemption – a central tenet in his operas.
Sidelined by the Edinburgh Festival, Scottish Opera has chased questionable co-production deals, and this season it will mount just three mainstage productions – the same number that Leeds-based Opera North is putting on before Christmas. Perhaps Joel-Hornak thought he had been promised more artistic clout than turned out to be the case. When asked by telephone at the weekend if this was so, he said, “You may say what you have said but I couldn’t possibly comment.”
The music director’s post at Scottish Opera is now a poisoned chalice. Prospective candidates will conclude that the job entails little more than taking musical responsibility for two shows per year. What the company needs is a young talent with ideas, ambition and full-time commitment. But Scottish Opera must first communicate an artistic vision, instead of lurching from season to season filling holes in its increasingly scanty calendar.
There have been some successes. Reedijk can point to small-scale work he has initiated – especially Five:15, the contemporary opera workshop that has thrown together writers and composers with notable results. He can also be proud of the way touring productions such as Rodelinda underscore the company’s national reach and demographic spread.
These shows give rising talents a chance to prove their worth. Chris Rolls’ modern-dress Handel staging tells the story clearly and fluently, with a flippant touch on the edges but unflinching seriousness when it matters. Sarah Power’s Rodelinda makes the most of her bright, personable soprano and acts her heart out, while Andrew Radley brings expressive lustre to the countertenor role of Bertarido. The key player is Wapshott, whose pacing and phrasing, above all in the Act Two prison duet, show complete stylistic command.
But these operas were written for a big stage. That is where Scottish Opera – founded by Alexander Gibson in 1962 with the aim of “laying the treasures of opera at the feet of the people of Scotland” – must raise its game. It will take more than another Don Giovanni, opening in Glasgow on October 15, to justify its existence.