Scottish Opera has reached its 50th birthday. Cause for celebration? Not when the only thing to celebrate is survival. In better times the cash-strapped company might have returned to Pelléas et Mélisande, a bold choice for its inaugural season in 1962, but Debussy is out of favour, even on his 150th anniversary, and it’s Prokofiev who is flavour of the moment. Independently of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s current Prokofiev festival, Scottish Opera chose his little known Sheridan comedy Betrothal in a Monastery for its annual collaboration with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. A strange choice, you might think, as two other Prokofiev operas were performed by the same forces in 2009 and 2010. Given Scotland’s limited operatic diet, surely something else was called for?
Not when the show is as good as this. Betrothal suits student voices: it has plenty of small parts, keeps a large chorus busy and is full of naïve melody. The orchestra and technical staff are professionals, with students working alongside, and the casting has been done with a sure touch. The overall standard is even higher than previous years. Even when inexperience occasionally shows through, there is ample compensation in the amount of energy, exuberance and talent radiating from the stage.
Unlike Glyndebourne’s feeble 2006 production, this one is sung in English, communicating a flair for comedy and character that reveals the opera’s stature – and its charm. A large part of that charm is, of course, the music, threaded with one of Prokofiev’s most bewitchingly smoochy themes and painted by the orchestra under Timothy Dean with perfectly restrained feeling. Kim-Lillian Strebel’s melting Louisa and Lynda-Jane Nelson’s dishy Duenna are the most expressive singers, while Rónan Busfield’s Don Jerome proves a natural farceur.
But it’s Rodula Gaitanou’s funny-and-fluent post-Franco production, brightly designed by Jamie Vartan and deftly choreographed by Kally Lloyd-Jones, that keeps us entertained, even when the plot becomes long-winded. Gaitanou has a fund of cliché-free ideas, a rare gift for stagecraft and a way of getting the best out of everyone – including Prokofiev.