Ken Walton: Scottish Opera’s shoestring approach?

Scottish Opera's season opens with Handel's Rodelinda
Scottish Opera's season opens with Handel's Rodelinda
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If we were to take a snapshot of Scottish Opera right at this moment, it would be of a company surviving on morsels.

Its presence at this year’s Edinburgh Festival was sadly apologetic, as if it had no choice but to pick up the scraps from under the grown-ups’ table.

On the one hand it had put its name to an ill-advised co-production with The Opera Group, the Young Vic and others of a bastardised version of Berg’s operatic masterpiece Lulu that paraded limply, pathetically and misguidedly as American Lulu. Who made that decision? And on what artistic basis was it made? For this was a re-imagined version by composer Olga Neuwirth, that had been panned last year in its original Berlin production, yet which was deemed salvageable and re-produced for Edinburgh a few weeks ago. Was it a case of take-it-or-leave-it for Scotland’s national opera company?

That Scottish Opera could be found elsewhere in Edinburgh, delivering small-scale productions in the Fringe, offered no greater 
assurance. Good on them for finding a way of being in the right place at the right time – Edinburgh at Festival time. But for any national arts company worth its salt, the Fringe is exactly that: a seat on the sidelines.

So does the coming season, which opens this week in Greenock with a new small-scale touring production of Handel’s Rodelinda, give us reason to believe that this was just a summer glitch, or that Scottish Opera’s artistic vision is more than a piecemeal collection of desperate opportunities?

Predictably, the scale and volume of opera productions remains at a significant low. It’s a sad day when we, and the Scottish Government paymasters, now accept three main scale operas as the status quo, with only one of them – Thomas Allen’s new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni – before January. Beyond that, we have Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in January and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in May, between which are a musically pared-down Verdi Macbeth at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, and a one-off concert performance of Puccini’s Turandot at the Usher Hall.

Scottish Opera will argue that all the add-on activity – its concert party-style Opera Highlights tour, its educational projects and productions, and the slimmed-down touring productions that take opera to far-flung community halls – is an essential part of a national company’s kit. And I’d be the last person to decry any initiative that services all of Scotland and fosters young interest in a glorious art form.

But the problem is, in terms of main scale opera performed and staged as the composer fully intended, we only have a Mozart, a Donizetti and a Puccini between now and next summer – a skeletal outline of the operatic landscape with many of the pivotal bones missing.

Scottish Opera has explained this away over the past few years by suggesting we view things on the longer scale – what general manager Alex Reedijk cheerily calls the gradual filling of his “basket of fruit”. The problem with that is, by the time you get round to completing the shopping expedition, the initial fruits have gone mouldy. And why should we, in a potentially independent Scotland, be putting up with this morsel 
approach, when the companies south of the border get a fuller delivery every year? What’s more, the full impact of what we’re missing hit home hard last month when I experienced in London the 100-strong spine tingling chorus of Deutsche Oper in a mind-blowing Proms performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. World class, part Scottish, but not on offer up here.

It’s in that context that the prospect next week of a slimline Rodelinda seems a sad metaphor for Scottish Opera’s current operational philosophy. There’s every chance it will be an inspired piece of theatre. Director Chris Rolls rightly points to it as one of Handel’s great trilogy of 1724/25 operas, along with Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, and the fact “it is about characters who are real, not mythical”. Musically, though, it is taking a risk by cutting down Handel’s Baroque orchestra to a single violin, single cello and harpsichord in a full-blown opera of over two hours. Would it be cynical to suggest that economics are fundamentally behind this, not artistic judgement?

Will it work? We’ll see this week. But whatever way you look at it, this is opera on a shoestring.

• Scottish Opera’s touring production of Handel’s Rodelinda opens at The Beacon, Greenock, on 26 September.