Opera Scotland

Stravinsky's Operas in Scotland

Posted 15 Feb 2022

Five of Stravinsky's operas and music-theatre pieces have been performed in Scotland.  They are The Soldier's Tale (Lausanne 1918), Renard (Paris 1922), Mavra (Paris 1922), Oedipus Rex (Paris 1927) and The Rake's Progress (Venice 1951).  The Nightingale (Paria 1914) and Perséphone (Paris 1934) do not yet appear to have been seen here.

The Soldier's Tale

1967 was Stravinsky Year at the Edinburgh Festival, and Scottish Opera mounted a staging of The Soldier's Tale in the Assembly Hall on the Mound, first seen on 4 September.  The conductor was Alexander Gibson, with stage direction by Wendy Toye.  The performers included actors Gordon Jackson (Narrator), Patrick Wymark (Devil) and Nicky Henson (Soldier). The part of the Princess was danced by Una Stubbs.

A later Festival saw a visit by the Toronto Symphony in 1986.  They presented The Soldier's Tale in the Usher Hall, conducted by Andrew Davis and directed by Brian Macdonald.  The leading English actor John Neville, now resident in Canada, was the Narrator, with Canadians Jeff Hyslop, Peter Ottman and Karen Kain completing the cast.

Most recently, the 2021 Festival saw a presentation with an instrumental ensemble directed by Nicola Benedetti.  A concert performance saw the danced role of the Princess omitted, but compensations included Sir Thomas Allen (Narrator), Anthony Flaum (Soldier) and Siobhan Redmond (Devil).

Renard

Renard is a light-hearted, indeed ribald, piece, rarely serious.  The 1969 Festival production, late night at the Freemasons' Hall in George Street, was given by the Music Theatre Ensemble - the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Atherton, assisted by some astonishing young talents. Philip Langridge and Alexander Oliver led the singers. A troupe of dancers included young Wayne Sleep, while the repetiteur (musical assistant) and stage manager were probably still students - Mark Elder and David Pountney.

Mavra

Mavra is also still little known, a farce derived from a Russian folk-tale.  Its first British performance came at the 1956 Edinburgh Festival.  The Hamburg State Opera presented a staging by an acknowledged master of the post-war operatic world, Günther Rennert, conducted by Leopold Ludwig.  An interesting idea was to follow classical Greek tradition by playing this frivolous piece after a near-contemporary Stravinsky masterpiece, the harrowing tragedy of Oedipus Rex.

Since then, Mavra has been seen in two student productions at the RSAMD/RCS.  In 2002 Timothy Dean conducted an excellent full-scale production by William Relton.  In 2016 a studio staging by Tom Creed was conducted by Derek Clark.

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex was not seen in Scotland until the Hamburg company brought it to the 1956 Edinburgh Festival.  As with Mavra, the conductor and director were Ludwig and Rennert.  The soloists included leading company members of the day such as Helmut Melchert (Oedipus), James Pease (Creon) and Maria von Ilosvay (Jocasta).

The 1972 Sadler's Wells tour saw the only visit of a famous production.  The staging by Michel St Denis was conducted by Charles Mackerras.  The cast included Adrian de Peyer (Oedipus),  Raimund Herincx (Creon), Robert Lloyd (Tiresias) and Katherine Pring (Jocasta).  At the 1986 Festival Andrew Davis with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and his Toronto Symphony built up a fair head of steam with a cast led by Robert Tear (Oedipus), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Creon/Messenger), Stafford Dean (Tiresias) and Alfreda Hodgson (Jocasta). As with The Soldier's Tale in the other half of the evening, the Narrator was the great returning actor John Neville.

Scottish Opera mounted Oedipus in a staging directed and designed by Stefanos Laziridis.  In 1989 the conductor was Graeme Jenkins, with a cast led by Alberto Remedios (Oedipus),  Rodney Macann (Creon/Messenger) and Anne-Marie Owens (Jocasta).  On revival the following year, John Treleaven took over the lead, with Nicholas Folwell as Creon/Messenger).

The Canadian Opera Company brought its production to the Edinburgh Festival in 2002.  Richard Bradshaw conducted the imaginative staging by François Girard, in which Michael Schade (Oedipus), Peteris Eglitis (Creon/Messenger) and Ewa Podles (Jocasta) were prominent.

The Rake's Progress

The first performance of The Rake's Progress in the UK was given at the King's Theatre as part of the Edinburgh International Festival on 25 August 1953, by Glyndebourne Opera.  Alfred Wallenstein conducted a staging directed by Carl Ebert, in lively designs by Osbert Lancaster.

The reception seems to have been mixed, some people not thinking it modern enough and others simply disliking the idea of contemporary opera, even with its 18th century dressing.  Elsie Morison and Richard Lewis sang Anne and Tom, with the American bass Jerome Hines as Shadow, and the great Scottish character tenor Murray Dickie as the auctioneer Sellem.  Nan Merriman sang Baba.

In 1967, the focus of the Edinburgh Festival centred on the work of Stravinsky, with the composer himself due to attend.  It was therefore seen as quite a distinction that Scottish Opera were invited to perform The Rake's Progress in the company's first appearance at the Festival.  Alexander Gibson conducted the production directed by Peter Ebert.  Tom was Alexander Young, the composer's own choice for the recording made a couple of years previously.   The Dundee-born soprano, Elizabeth Robson, sang Anne.  Dutch baritone Peter van der Bilt was Nick, with the Czech mezzo Sona Cervena as Baba.

In 1969, Sadler's Wells took the Rake on tour throughout the UK, enabling Glasgow and Aberdeen to see the opera for the first time, as well as Edinburgh.   Roderick Brydon conducted, with Gregory Dempsey as Tom, Raimund Herincx as Shadow and Ann Howard as Baba.  The veteran Edith Coates, at the end of a long career, stole her scene as Mother Goose.

In 1971, the second Scottish Opera staging had to be put together quickly when it was found that the 1967 sets were not usable.  David Pountney was a young staff producer barely out of university, and he created an imaginative, witty (and cheap) staging which introduced modern elements for the first time - Baba was silenced under a large commercial hair dryer!  Alexander Young returned, as did Peter van der Bilt as Shadow, and Johanna Peters added Baba to the Mother Goose she had sung in 1967.  The highly promising soprano Jill Gomez was Anne.

Scottish Opera's third staging came in 2012.  It was conducted by Siân Edwards and directed by David McVicar.  The cast included Edgaras Montvidas (Tom), Steven Page (Nick), Carolyn Sampson (Anne) and Leah-Marian Jones (Baba).  Most recently, the Edinburgh Festival again looked at the piece, this time in a concert at the Usher Hall in 2015.  Sir Andrew Davis conducted, with Andrew Staples (Tom), Gidon Saks (Nick), Emily Birsan (Anne), Peter Rose (Trulove) and Elizabeth DeShong (Baba).

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