EVEN now that the remarkable vaccination program hits an operatic crescendo, the Covid pandemic is casting a long shadow over Scotland’s performing arts.
Some companies, not least the Scottish Opera (which recently started its extensive pop-up opera tour), offer outdoor productions.
However, without changing the Scottish Government’s insistence that the cinema audiences sit a considerable two meters apart, our playhouses remain closed to the plague.
Hence, we continue to see the publication of online work instead of live and presentation stage productions.
The latest filmed offering from Scottish Opera (whose output from the pandemic era has been impressive) is this take of Donizetti’s wonderfully goofy comic opera L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love).
Like most online versions of stage shows, it is an example of a theater company using the internet as a lifeboat, a safe haven for their work until they can return to their natural habitat of live performances.
Filmed in the magnificent Theater Royal in Glasgow (home of our national west coast opera), the production by director Roxana Haines looks like an upgraded version of an archive film a company could make of a dress rehearsal. The improvements, including more well-placed cameras and some sharp cuts, give the film the professional look of a live opera filmed for television.
There are numerous factors that make it clear that this is not just a rehearsal of a live show. First of all, the physically distant orchestra is on stage and not in the pit.
The choir, which stands in the stands, is now even further apart, as there is a particular risk of aerosol transmission of the virus when singing. The carefully distanced main actors play themselves on a stage that stretches across the orchestra pit.
This recorded, physically distant work is inevitably a shadow of what it would have been if it had been created for a live audience. Nonetheless, it is Haines’ great credit that it turns out to be two thoroughly enjoyable hours.
DONIZETTI’s opera buffa is a standard comic book story of boy meets girl, girl rejects boys, boy is influenced by a classic story of chivalrous romance, boy meets shameless snake oil seller, boy puts all his future happiness on a seedy “elixir of love” that, actually home-brewed red wine.
It’s not difficult to understand why the play (which Haines and costume designer Emma Butchart set to music as a Jane Austen novel) is one of Donizetti’s most popular theatrical works and an integral part of the modern operatic repertoire. The music has all the grandeur and romantic subtlety that we expect from the Italian operatic tradition.
The piece also features a number of classic Buffo characters: the self-proclaimed “capricious” young woman Adina; her naive, amorous admirer Nemorino; the ridiculously self-centered Army Sergeant Belcore; and the unscrupulous shy Dulcamara. Haines is a talented young director whose open air La Boheme was a delight for Scottish Opera last fall.
She draws beautiful performances from the emerging artists Catriona Hewitson (Adina), Shengzhi Ren (Nemorino) and Arthur Bruce (Belcore) as well as Elena Garrido Madrona of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Opera School (in the supporting role of Gianetta).
The only thing that can help the development of these young singers is that they are accompanied on stage by the great, experienced baritone Roland Wood (whom we will soon see live, who plays the title role in Sir David McVicar’s Falstaff) in the role of Dulcamara .
Even on the big screen, Wood’s wonderfully funny, beautifully sung performance is a tangible opera masterclass.
L’elisir d’amore can be viewed on YouTube and the Scottish Opera website: scottishopera.org.uk