THE Lammermuir Festival, packed full of world class concert music, is adding opera to its schedule for the first time
I’m beginning to think the current scarcity of opera productions by our national company, Scottish Opera, has encouraged others to pick up the slack. For if we look around us, the past few weeks alone (away from an Edinburgh International Festival programme also low in opera), have thrown up interesting and enterprising staged presentations by the likes of Edward Caswell’s adventurous Cromarty Youth Opera (a staging by professionals and youngsters of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Cinderella) and Opera Bohemia (a touring production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicci).
Now it’s the turn of the burgeoning Lammermuir Festival, which – for the first time in its five-year history – has programmed a fully-staged opera on top of its customary world-class programme of concert music.
And the wonderful thing is, Lammermuir has chosen to dip its toe in the operatic water with Monteverdi’s final opera The Coronation of Poppea, a work he completed in Venice a year before his death in 1643 that effectively set the bar for modern opera: a tale of real people and their emotions and morality (or lack of it), rather than the mythological world of Gods and Arcadian shepherds.
The story stems from actual history – Poppea’s unscrupulous quest to become Empress of Rome, and her ruthless exploitation of Nero’s infatuation in achieving that - which, together with visual spectacle and amoral intrigues, would have given contemporary Venetians exactly what they wanted, including a spicy allegory to the way things probably still were in certain corrupt circles of 17th century Italy.
That aside, The Coronation of Poppea is a musical phenomenon, and a Scottish performance is way overdue. So what was it that made Lammermuir’s joint artistic directors, Hugh Macdonald and James Waters, decide that opera would be a good idea, and why this particular one?
“We’ve found, over the first five years of Lammermuir, that as we’ve introduced more and more into the mix, the festival has got richer, more adventurous, and consequently more popular,” Macdonald explains. “We’ve always felt there’s an optimum number of events we could do – which is between 18 and 20 – but that was never going to stop us developing the diversity of the programme.
“To this point, we’ve focused on chamber music, symphony and choral events.” And sure enough, there’s no lack of that this year, including an opening concert by the Royal Northern Sinfonia and this year’s featured artist, the oboist François Leleux, concerts by the Heath Quartet, the National Youth Choir of Scotland (Duruflé’s Requiem), a highly-anticipated performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Régards by pianist Steven Osborne, world-renowned soprano Christine Brewer and the BBC SSO in Strauss’ Four Last Songs, and a Handelian finale (Acis and Galatea) by the Dunedin Consort.
“But in the back of our minds has always been the belief that if we could find the right opera, then that would give the programme added depth. We’re both mad keen on opera anyway, but it’s quite an expensive item, so we had to find a way of making it possible.”
The answer came through Waters’ acquaintance with Christopher Glynn, an experienced opera coach and répétiteur, a conductor with Glyndebourne experience, a teacher at the Royal College of Music and, more importantly, artistic director of the long-running Ryedale Festival in Yorkshire, for which this particular Monteverdi production by director Nina Brazier was created.
“Ryedale is a bit like Lammermuir,” says Macdonald. “It’s a beautiful rural area in North Yorkshire, and the festival has been doing opera for the past three or four years. Given the similar scale of our respective venues, it seemed likely that importing Ryedale’s highly-rated Poppea would give us the ideal Lammermuir opera.”
There will be one festival performance only, on 13 September, at the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh. But Poppea will also be staged at Perth Concert Hall – a venue, also artistically directed by Waters, that adapts itself brilliantly to staging opera – on 15 September.
In both cases, it promises to offer a fresh perspective on an opera that poses many challenges, not least that no definitive source version of it exists. It’s clear – from manuscripts discovered in Venice and Naples – that the ageing Monteverdi didn’t actually write all of the music, but was helped by younger composers, not unusual for an elderly master dealing with the fast turnaround expected by the product-hungry Venetian opera houses.
That knowledge has allowed conductor Christopher Glynn to exercise latitude in giving this production a musical personality and integrity of its own. There are a couple of bits, he says, where “you just know in your gut it’s not by Monteverdi”. So he’s either cut these sections or, in other places, added music by compatible Italians, such as Gabrielli and Frescobaldi.
Nor, he believes, does it help simply to replicate the type of performance the Venetians would have expected: theatrical extravaganzas noted for their spectacular use of flying machinery, the so-called “Deus ex machina”. “These are real flesh and blood people,” says Glynn, adding that for sheer practicality this has to be a production you can easily “pack into the back of a van”.
The cast is young, all of them completely fresh to their respective roles, as are the period instrument players of Eboracum Baroque, who perform on stage, silhouetted against the back wall. More than anything, though, it’s another fresh operatic seed being sown in a country where our major player in the field is selling us short.
• The Lammermuir Festival runs from 12-21 September in venues throughout East Lothian, www.lammermuirfestival.co.uk