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Theatre review: an operatic rarity that left everybody smiling and humming

The Scottish Opera cast on stage at the Garrison Theatre on Wednesday evening. Photo: Alex Garrick-Wright.

SEEING the Garrison Theatre absolutely packed with audience members is a wonderful thing, and it was on Wednesday night for Scottish Opera’s Highlights, writes Alex Garrick-Wright.

It’s been quite a while since Scottish Opera made it as far north as Lerwick – more than six years, in fact. Their last production, Orpheus in the Underworld, was a bold and refreshing take on Offenbach’s classic, so there was some anticipation for their new show. Nearly 200 braved the inclement weather, and trudged through the snow to see if Highlights fulfilled their expectations.

Whatever their expectations were, Highlights definitely subverted and surpassed them. It was at once a playlist of opera snippets, ranging from the instantly-recognisable (Cosi fan tutte) to the genuinely obscure (L’esule di Granata, anyone?). What elevated it above a regular concert was the frame story: a tale of ambition, love and jealousy among members of a travelling opera company.

The audience were, wisely, eased into things with baritone Benjamin Lewis playing stage manager Brian, giving a hearty and spirited Largo al factotum (from The Barber of Seville) as the divas (Máire Flavin’s petulant Sophia and William Morgan’s delightfully pretentious Petrarch) threw their discarded costumes and props at him to clear up.

Joining them was the shy Henrietta, played by Scottish Opera’s emerging artist Catherine Backhouse, who dreams of stepping out of the wings and into the footlights. In a brilliant establishing moment of characterisation, she nervously checks she is alone in the theatre before giving a beautiful Voche che sapete from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

However, ambition overcomes Henrietta. Egged on by the slightly creepy Petrarch, and against the wishes of Brian and Sophia (out of concern and jealousy, respectively), she blows them away with a wonderful trio from L’esule di Grenata, and slips further and further into divahood.

The plot is actually weirdly reminiscent of a vampire story: the decadent Petrarch, resplendent in a flowing white shirt and embroidered tailcoat, sets his predatory sights on the innocent Henrietta, spurning his languorous and spiteful lover Sophia, with whom he has been for ‘centuries’. Petrarch can offer Henrietta ‘immortality’ (as he calls it) on the stage, but at a price.

By the second act, when Henrietta has joined Petrarch and Sophia as a singer; the mousy, bespectacled stage manager now a confident and insufferable prima donna, with flowing hair, make-up, and theatrical costume. Brian calls her out, referring to the Henrietta that he knew as ‘dead’, and she hardly disagrees.

The plot, however, is not what Highlights was about. The performances – both in terms of music and acting – were magnificent. All four singers managed to deftly marry strong characterisation with incredible performances. It’s hard to be genuinely funny while pelting out an aria, but the cast were revelling in their absurd characters even through their songs.

Petrarch and Sophia, getting far too passionate with each other during a duet from Handel’s Acis and Galatea while Brian tries to hurry the pianist along to get it all over with was a delight, as was Petrarch and Brian’s jealous, testosterone-fuelled posturing in Bizet’s Au fond du temple saint. This wasn’t a po-faced affair; when you have two lovers angrily singing at each other, while their colleague literally watches with a little bucket of popcorn, you’re definitely in for a treat.

While all the cast were superb singers, it was their abilities as actors that really elevated Highlights to another level. William Morgan seemed to be having tremendous fun playing Petrarch as an absolute tosser, and was a joy to watch. Benjamin Lewis’ funny-yet-downtrodden Brian infused personality into every interaction and song, and (without wishing to spoil) his turn as ‘Byron’ was the highlight of Highlights.

Flavin’s Sophia was brilliant, flipping between languid and fiery like a coin in the air, having played the operatic damsel so often that she’s now genuinely become one. Her heart-breaking performance of Embroidery in Childhood (from Peter Grimes) left the audience in awed silence, captivated by the singer’s emotional collapse.

Backhouse also shone as the tempted Henrietta, whose journey is either a rise or fall, depending on your view. The brief moments of doubt at her new life are poignant, and her duet with Brian, Rossini’s Ai capricci della sorte, when little flashes of her playful former self sneak through as the old friends fall apart, was probably the best song of the concert.

Setting this all off was masterful piano work by the immensely talented Patrick Milne, and some genuinely inspired set design. The set, consisting entirely of folding screens, was versatile enough to be changed on a whim, and allowed certain songs to be augmented by enthralling, back-lit shadow work. The slow materialisation of Henrietta’s silhouette as Petrarch obsesses over her in Pace non Trovo was especially well done, and did more with a spotlight and a white screen than some operas achieve with lavish sets, backdrops and a cast of dozens.

By the end, the production had completely thrown off the mask of serious opera and were just enjoying themselves – and the audience along with them. Ending on some wild Gilbert and Sullivan (The Gondoliers no less) and a couple of big laughs, the cast were duly rewarded with the kind of applause that would make the Royal Opera House blush.

Highlights was a rarity in opera, marrying impeccable vocal performances with charming acting, witty dialogue, and a genuine sense of fun. It took a simple premise and worked wonders, tying the audience’s expectations up in knots and leaving them smiling and humming the whole way home. Magnificent. Let’s hope they don’t leave it six years to come back again.

Alex Garrick-Wright