A night at the opera: songs of love and death

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Kenneth Montgomery: master craftsman

I like opera. There. I’ve said it. For many people, it’s a closed world – but at the end of the day it’s music, and it is as accessible as any other form of music you might care to mention. You only need a pair of ears and an open mind.

Some see opera as an out-dated art form – dead from the neck up and the chin down. But in truth it has the capacity still to touch people’s lives. In the right hands, a production of an opera – even one written centuries ago – can be as explosive as the most expensive Hollywood blockbuster.

That was brought home to me at Scottish Opera’s current production, Orfeo ed Euridice. Gluck’s opera was revolutionary when it was first performed in Vienna in 1762, and it remains potent today.

It deals with issues that strike at the very essence of our common humanity: love and loss. Such is the stuff of opera. The operatic stage is littered with bodies – Butterfly stabs herself, Tosca flings herself from the battlements of the Castle Sant Angelo in Rome, Brunnhilde rides onto the funeral pyre of her slain lover.

In Orfeo ed Euridice Gluck gets the dying over early. It opens with Euridice’s funeral ceremony; and the story takes us through Orfeo’s courageous journey – braving the underworld to bring her back.

He succeeds, but only just – Euridice’s insecurity almost destroys their dream of a long and happy life and she dies again on her return from Hades.

For those of us conditioned by the grim realities of 19th century opera, Orfeo ed Euridice is one of those things to be treasured, it is an opera with a happy ending. Euridice is restored a second time and the celebratory final chorus is a delight and sends us out into the world happy.

There are no gimmicks in Scottish Opera’s beautiful and arresting production. The focus is on the singing and the dance – Gluck wrote two of opera’s finest ballet sequences in the Dance of the Furies and the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, and they are brilliantly realised. The blessed spirits are not saccharine by any stretch of the imagination though in less expert hands than those of director Ashley Page they might have been twee.

Caitlin Hulcup and Lucy Hall play the lovers. Ana Quintans is Amore, a god plucked from the era of La Dolce Vita. With only three principals and a chorus, it’s economical to put on, but no less powerful for that.

At the helm is Kenneth Montgomery, one of the surest hands in the opera world today.

Kenneth is one of the unsung heroes of British music. Quietly spoken and diffident, he is a master craftsman. Most of his career has been spent in Europe and the United States where he is a fixture in Santa Fe’s summer festival – and that is a loss to British audiences. It is more than 30 years since he was last at Scottish Opera.

An Ulsterman, he was the making of Opera Northern Ireland (now defunct), and some of the most dazzling operas I have seen were conducted by him there when he was its driving force. He is also a former Principal Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra – reinvigorating the repertoire, not least with approaches to the Romantic movement that reconnected it with its roots.

Throughout its life Ulster Orchestra has had a series of principal conductors – many of them outstanding. It is a great orchestra. But it would have benefitted from a long-term partnership with an individual capable of shaping its sound and giving it a greater sense of musical identity. Montgomery could have been that man.

In the concert hall or theatre, Montgomery brings something special to the music. He wants to understand the context in which the music was written, as well as knowing the music itself. As a result, his readings are authentic, but not puritanically so. They live and breath rather than being museum pieces.

That is very much the case with his spirited Gluck, which is full of life.

This production is evidence enough that opera as a medium is very much alive, and capable of touching people’s lives today in much the same way as Gluck’s music did when it first saw the light of day in the eighteenth century.