Opera review: Cottier Chamber Project, Cottier’s Theatre, Glasgow

An opera singer dressed as an iris graced The Meadows The Iris Murders  premiered at Cottiers. Picture: Neil Hanna
An opera singer dressed as an iris graced The Meadows The Iris Murders premiered at Cottiers. Picture: Neil Hanna
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If, as we reported a couple of weeks ago, the Cottier Chamber Project was nearly a no-go this year due to a funding hiccup, there was never any danger, when it did eventually get the go-ahead, that it would be as popular a hit as the previous festivals.

SCO Wind Soloists | Rating: ***** | Cottier Chamber Project, Cottier’s Theatre, Glasgow

The Iris Murders | Rating: **** | Cottier Chamber Project, Cottier’s Theatre, Glasgow

If, as we reported a couple of weeks ago, the Cottier Chamber Project was nearly a no-go this year due to a funding hiccup, there was never any danger, when it did eventually get the go-ahead, that it would be as popular a hit as the previous festivals.

I dipped into a couple of programmes during the first of three action-packed weeks. Firstly, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists, a crack ensemble that is well practised in going it alone as a slick and distinctive showcase phenomenon.

They chose an all-Beethoven programme, but one that expressed very different facets of the composer, from the clarinet-dominated Sextet in E flat of 1796 to the wholesome symphonic palate of the gutsy Octet of around 1792, when he left Bonn for Vienna.

The mainstay of the Sextet is its long and dramatic opening movement, music filled with enticing lyricism and bold Beethovenesque rhetoric. The players – pairs of clarinets, horns and bassoons – found character in every bar. Maximiliano Martin on first clarinet played his role like a leading actor, defining the moods with edge and nuance in equal measure, to which those around him responded with alert reaction.

Yet it was the supreme sense of ensemble that defined this performance, sure-footed togetherness from which sprung delicious moments of self-expression, but always driven by common purpose. Never once did the music become grounded in musical dogma. Peter Whelan’s bassoon solo in the Adagio floated in the ambient breeze; the instrumental couplings played mischief with the spirited Menuetto; the horns raised a giggle with their virtuosic send-off in the finale.

Before the Octet, Martin and Whelan offered an intimate diversion with one of Beethoven’s Duos for clarinet and bassoon. What could easily have been passed off as a trifling aside was everything but. This was a comedy double act where animated interplay by the musicians transformed a relatively simple style of music into a piece of theatrical entertainment.

If the instruments looked incidental in the process, that’s only because these players’ outrageous skill made it all seem so easy.

Then the Octet, and the fullest sound of the early evening programme for which the two oboes joined the line-up. What a cracking work this is, in which Beethoven hides serious intent within light and sparkly wrapping. Again, this was airborne playing that ebbed and flowed with natural ease, particularly the risky natural horns, expertly played by Alec Frank-Gemmill and Harry Johnstone.

It was a very different ensemble that provided the engine room of Alasdair Nicolson’s new chamber opera, The Iris Murder. Commissioned by the Hebrides Ensemble, and premiered in Cottier’s before subsequent performances in Edinburgh and at the St Magnus Festival (20 June), it is a 70-minute setting of a libretto by New Zealand poet, John Gallas.

There’s a smidgen of Beckett in the obscurity, often absurdity, of its theatrical stance, more allegory than realism. Is the weird and lonesome Rawley Beaunes, a smartly-suited gent who seems none-to-hinged, truly a murderer revisiting the woods where he disposed of women’s bodies, notably Iris? Is Iris real, or is she a spirited manifestation of his conscience, sent by the mysterious Green Man to impose a ghostly justice? We’re never too sure.

These three characters, stage directed by Martin Consadine, interacted fluidly, often with svelte balletic synchronicity, within Gabriella Slade’s dark, minimalist set design. All very simple, and where the tiny performing space allowed it, intimate and powerful.

Christopher Bowen, a giant tenor with a meltingly pure voice, played Beaunes with frightening conviction, a kind of calculated mania. In Iris, Elizabeth Llewellyn found sultry soulfulness, largely through the molten quality of her singing. But it was often impossible to catch her diction, a crucial issue in a libretto relying on the power and clarity of its allusive wording.

Andrew Fellows, a creepy, otherworldly arbitrator of the soul, had to lip-sync his role on Friday due to a throat infection, but was lucky to have the unflappable bass voice of Oliver Hunt, singing from the wings, as his stentorian “voice”.

Nicolson’s music is the ultimate motivator in this strange tale. His ensemble - a curiously decadent Hebrides grouping of accordion, clarinet, cello and percussion, directed from the cello by William Conway - underpins effectively the lugubrious flavour of the piece. It has a motoric omnipresence, driven by jagged ostinati and catchy, parodic snatches.

If its unflagging consistency proved a powerful enough binding agent, it had its downside in the occasional desire one got for it to move onto fresh new plains, just now and again. But there was no faulting the instrumental performance, and its power to hold us in thrall, even where the storyline lost us.