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Music review: Masked and socially-distanced audience confirms we are far from out of Covid woods yet

Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

Keith Brice

four stars

WITH Scotland’s orchestras in the starting blocks for new seasons in front of live audiences, few things confirm that the arts are on a path out of the pandemic than the opening of a Scottish Opera tour with four young singers and a pianist that takes in Ballachulish Village Hall, Strathpeffer Pavilion and An Lanntair in Stornoway beyond its opening at Greenock’s Beacon.

Equally this hour-long performance in front of a masked and socially-distanced public (half a normal show for half its customary audience) confirms that we are far from out of the woods yet. It would be grossly unfair to compare this return directly with the years of similar productions that have preceded it – even the version filmed at the same venue during the pandemic when touring was impossible was nearer the full thing.

Director Jeanne Pansard-Besson and MD Fiona MacSherry, at the piano, have given the sequence of solos, duets and ensemble pieces a loose narrative around two newly-wed couples, one of which is blessed with issue, the other visited by tragedy, to link the music selected by Head of Music Derek Clark. As usual it includes some familiar favourites alongside the less well-known and downright obscure, although perhaps a couple more in the first category might not have gone amiss on this occasion.

There is one familiar face onstage in baritone Alexey Gusev, a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist in the pre-pandemic era. He is joined by two new recruits to that scheme, mezzo Lea Shaw and tenor Glen Cunningham (an Inverness lad), and Welsh soprano Meinir Wyn Roberts.

With no dialogue and few props, the music is left to do the talking and it was the duets that stood out on opening night, Cunningham and Roberts combining well on Parle-moi de la mere! from Bizet’s Carmen after Gusev and Shaw’s wistful O chudni slaskyi son! from the conclusion of Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans. The mezzo-soprano made the most confident first impression of the debutantes, partly perhaps because her invented character has the most turbulent journey in the scenario, but both the tenor and soprano were vocally very secure in their solo outings, with Roberts having the more interesting repertoire in arias from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

MacSherry’s upright piano sounded in less than peak condition at times, and the four singers are not yet gelling terrifically well as an ensemble for the opening and closing quartets (from Oberon and Die Fledermaus), but that will surely happen on the road and make this Opera Highlights a less tentative show when it returns to the Clyde at Ayr Gaiety and Dunoon.

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