Opera review: OperaUpClose, St Andrews Botanic Garden, Fife

Anthony Flaum and Flora McIntosh complemented each other well as Jose and Carmen. Picture: Andreas Grieger
Anthony Flaum and Flora McIntosh complemented each other well as Jose and Carmen. Picture: Andreas Grieger
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Putting on summer opera in the open air, particularly in Scotland, is undoubtedly a risk. Not just in terms of what the weather might do, but the inevitable challenges of a space without the usual benefits and predictable acoustic of a more mainstream theatre space.

OperaUpClose: Carmen/Music Oft Hath Such a Charm | Rating: **** | St Andrews Botanic Garden, Fife

As it turned out over the final weekend of July, the weather put in one of its best performances all season, and allowed the London based OperaUpClose to show the best of theirs too. As the award-winning company’s name suggests, the experience they offer is one of opera with intimacy, with the Byre in the Botanics inflatable stage set-up and covered – but clear to the skies – auditorium working well in both Bizet’s Carmen on Friday night and an operatic tribute to Shakespeare on Saturday.

In a new, immediately natural, English translation of Carmen by the company’s artistic director, Robin Norton-Hale, the words from each of the cast of nine were easily heard through consistently first-rate singing, allowing a strong sense of connection and engagement of their distinctly defined characters with each other.

For all her defiance, it was the vulnerable humanity of Carmen that lingered in Flora McIntosh’s sassy, confidently alluring enactment of the title role, a fitting complement to tenor Anthony Flaum’s ego-driven José. A tight-knit ensemble of just four instrumentalists, directed with great efficiency from Paul McKenzie at the piano, valiantly took on all the colours of Bizet’s vibrant orchestral score, but it wasn’t enough to support the singers fully.

Not so the following evening, when McKenzie, McIntosh and Flaum were joined by baritone Tom Stoddart and soprano Louise Lloyd, all at ground level right beside the audience this time, for a rather ingenious weaving together of vocal excerpts linked to Shakespeare.

The story, appropriately for the stunning setting of the Botanic Gardens, involves four friends having a picnic, with happy love, betrayal and then happy love again basically being the storyline. Beatrice puzzling over a picture of Sylvia (Schubert’s Who is Sylvia) on Benedict’s (of Bérlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict) mobile phone sets a contemporary feel.

Inevitably, there is a happy foursome selfie, accompanied by the pop of Prosecco to finish, concluding Valentina Ceschi’s irreverent yet affectionate take on the originals which make up the show. Segueing one composer straight into another worked better with some than others. However, the odd bump didn’t matter as the four singers and McKenzie carried it all off with natural aplomb, whether a jolt from Bérlioz to Cole Porter and his So in Love from Kiss Me Kate, or an unintended collapsing deckchair as the rich, creamy mezzo voice of Flora McIntosh made a heartfelt plea to her lover.

French composer Ambroise Thomas’s opera Hamlet is not well known, but A vos jeux, mes amis from it was a gift for the coloratura skills of Louise Lloyd and her deliciously light high notes, all, as throughout the evening, masterfully underpinned at the piano by Paul McKenzie.