Scottish Opera is about to hit the road with its first production of the new season, a whittled-down version of Donizetti’s helter-skelter comedy The Elixir of Love (L’elisir d’amore). And in the course of its 17-venue run, Stuart Stratford, beginning his second full season as the company’s musical director, is looking forward to seeing bits of Scotland he hasn’t yet discovered.
“I’ve never been to Motherwell,” he gleefully admits, though there are, I assure him, more exotic locations in this whistlestop tour than the Lanarkshire town where stage director Oliver Platt’s promisingly whimsical production opens this Wednesday, ranging from Langholm in the Borders and Thurso in the north, to Stornaway in the west and St Andrews in the east.
What he’s really looking forward to, though, are close-up encounters with Scotland’s farthest-flung opera lovers, for whom he believes this type of small-scale touring is nothing less than a cultural entitlement. “It’s all too easy to say to those who live in remoter parts of the country that they should go to the big theatres in the central belt if they want some decent opera. That’s basically telling them: ‘you don’t have the access, even though you pay for it’. Everywhere should have access to high-quality opera, so I’m determined to do my part and take it out there.”
Stratford won’t be conducting all the performances – Scottish Opera’s head of music, Derek Clark, as musical arranger of this chamber-sized rewrite of Donizetti, will share the load. But by being there much of the time, Stratford is putting his money where his mouth is.
Inevitably, such stripping down of the score will alter a Donizetti favourite many are familiar with. The chorus is one voice to a part, and the orchestra is pared to the bone. But there’s a lot to be gained from that. All the music is there, Stratford promises, “and the fact we’re not resorting to filtering this lovely score through a sole piano will give these intimate audiences a genuine feel for the real thing.
“It’s what opera is about: live singers, live instruments, but what I love about small scale touring is that people are so close to the action. Imagine what it’s like to have the tenor right in front of you belting out his top B flat. It’s a visceral sensation you’ll never forget.”
The Elixir of Love, in any shape or size, is a fun night out. Seasoned opera-goers will recall Scottish Opera’s past productions, including one that had the show’s number one comedian and quack pedlar of the mischief-making elixir, Dulcamara, being driven on stage in a full-size Fiat. “It’s a bicycle in this one,” Stratford reveals. The flavour of Platt’s production, and Oliver Townsend’s stage designs is pure 1920s PG Wodehouse. Beyond that, Stratford will only disclose that the action – sung in English translation – takes place “somewhere in England”.
This production marks the start of a significant new season for Stratford. His signature is firmly on the repertoire, and his presence will be fairly substantial. After completing the Donizetti run, which finishes in Musselburgh at the end of October, he’s back in February and March to conduct Debussy’s masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande, then in May and June for Puccini’s La Bohème, both brand new productions by David McVicar and quirky twosome Renaud Doucet & André Barbe respectively.
He won’t be personally involved in next month’s revival of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, nor in March’s new co-production with Vanishing Point of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (which forms a double bill with a freshly-written music theatre “prequel” by Matthew Lenton and Lliam Paterson).
But he will conduct three of the four Opera in Concert series at the Theatre Royal, which will feature operas rarely seen on the stage, including Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue and Puccini’s Le Villi.
The first of that series, Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, is on 23 October. “We all know Cavalleria Rusticana”, says Stratford. “Those who love that will absolutely love this.” If enthusiasm counts for anything, Stratford may just be the musical elixir Scottish Opera needs. ■
Scottish Opera’s small-scale touring production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love opens at Motherwell Concert Hall, 21 September. For full tour details, and to book tickets, visit