Opera Scotland

Feast in Time of Plague 2023Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Read more about the opera Feast in Time of Plague

It appears that March is the season for triple bills.  Hot on the heels of Scottish Opera mounting their first staging of Puccini's Trittico, here comes the Conservatoire in Glasgow.  Unfortunately, a bout of illness swept through the student body during the final week of rehearsals.  This meant that much preparation time was lost and the first of the three works had to be dropped altogether.  The original opening performance, on Saturday 18 March, was cancelled.

They had planned to give us three Russian-inspired pieces.  The development of the national school of composers was led by a quintet known as the 'mighty handful'.  Of these, Balakirev, Musorgsky and Borodin remain in the repertoire, if only because of a few works.

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is perhaps the most frequently performed of them, not just for his own works but for the selflessly useful rescue job he performed on the operas of his alcohol-fuelled friend Musorgsky's output, until the mid-20th century when it became able to fend for itself.  Rimsky's one-act Mozart and Salieri  (1898) is hardly known in Scotland - the Academy did it thirty-odd years ago, following an SNO concert, but no-one has touched it since.  How sad, then, that the general illness in the cast meant that this important revival had to be cancelled at the last minute.  It was replaced as an opener by a staged (mimed) version of Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes.  The coffins were employed to introduce the plague theme, while the Klezmer music linked to the final opera, by Elena Langer.

It is to be hoped that the Rimsky will come back to the schedule before too long.

The least regarded of the 'handful' is César Cui (1835-1918), who was certainly seen as important in his day, both as composer and a distinctly waspish critic. Several operas enjoyed initial success.  A Feast in Time of Plague (1901) at least sounds interesting.  It also uses one of Pushkin's little tragedies, and is set in London 1665 (the year before the great fire, which may have helped purify the city).  Daniel Defoe, famed as the author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote a fictionalised account in 1722, which he called A Journal of the Plague Year.  Pushkin's source is different, however - a forgotten dramatic poem of 1816 by John Wilson.

There are five sung roles - the standard quintet of soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone and bass.  The first four have assembled every evening to eat, drink. and celebrate their continued survival.  Their nearest and dearest, including the President's wife, have been dying off.  He is only just maintaining control. The passing of a doctor carrying a coffing (clearly a child) upsets them.  This is followed by the arrival od a priest to reprimand them for their frivolity.  They eventually see him off, but it looks as though their remaining time will be short.

The music is attractive and beautifully orchestrated. It is largely sombre in colouring - hardly surprising - with only the young man's highly lyrical aria providing a desperate attempt at cheerfulness.  On the opening night, the soprano scheduled to sing Mary was still voiceless, so the role was taken beautifully by Marie Cayeux, whose first performance had been cancelled.  Whether Rosalind Dobson recovered in time for the last night is to be confirmed.  The other soloists, Ross Cumming, Sam Marston, Wiktoria Wizner and Pawel Piotrowski, in general terms sang well - perhaps the two baritones had not recovered full resonance.  THis was in all an enjoyable presentation of a completely unknown work which is well worth hearing.  The orchestral playing was beautiful.

The third work, Four Sisters, composed by Elena Langer, is a contemporary work, premiered in New York in 2012.  It is inspired by Chekhov's great work Three Sisters - though given a comic updating that bears little resemblance to its source.

Performance Cast

Walsingham the President

Ross Cumming

Young Man

Sam Marston (Mar 20, 24)

William Searle (Mar 22)


Wiktoria Wizner


Marie Cayeux (Mar 20, 22)

Rosalind Dobson (Mar 24)

Plague Doctor

William Searle (Mar 20, 24)

Sam Marston (Mar 22)


Pavel Piotrowski

Performance DatesFeast in Time of Plague 2023

Map List

New Athenaeum Theatre | Glasgow

20 Mar, 19.15 22 Mar, 19.15 24 Mar, 19.15

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