Bagpipes apart, the Scots are not unmusical, so it’s bizarre that at St Andrews University they have no music faculty: a sad omission in a place so civilised. But there are platforms for performance. And among them is the annual St Andrews Voices Festival, a concentrated dose of singing that sweeps opera, cabaret and choirs into the town over a long weekend.
The choral focus this time round was on the masterly, one-to-a-part vocal ensemble I Fagiolini, a group whose name means Little Beans and tells you they don’t take themselves too seriously.
Their projects come with pukka scholarship: you might remember their recording of the Striggio 40-part Mass which made headlines when it was issued a few years back. But their shows are usually embellished with the erudite, “high table” wit of their conductor Robert Hollingworth. And for the Voices Festival they cheered up programmes of Renaissance madrigals and French song with, respectively, a simulated exorcism done for laughs (a dodgy undertaking, I admit) and an obscure cantata by Jean Françaix, Ode à la gastronomie, which satirises Gallic prissiness about the art of eating. Both were revelations.
Another was the presence on the platform of the pianist Anna Markland, who won the BBC Young Musician competition some years ago and seemed destined for great things, but then disappeared. I always wondered where she went, and now I know. She’s singing with I Fagiolini, and accompanying their concerts as required. An interesting career shift.
Scottish Opera breezed into the Voices Festival as well, with an exquisitely done, cut-down touring show of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore featuring a cast so strong you had to wonder why they were here and not in some big international production. And there was also a semi-staged Magic Flute, chiefly memorable for a piano duo accompaniment based on a reduction by Zemlinsky, and a narration (substituting for the spoken dialogue) devised and spoken with a sort of Jackanory relish by the Scottish writer Janice Galloway.
Back in London, the Royal Opera has the colourful Australian director Barrie Kosky in residence with a characteristically high-energy, high-camp staging of Shostakovich’s The Nose: a raucous piece of early Soviet modernism with a one-joke story (after Gogol, about someone whose olfactory organ goes AWOL) which isn’t easy to sustain for over two hours. Kosky throws everything he can at it to keep things going, and succeeds in part. But if the show stays on the road it’s largely thanks to the bass-baritone Martin Winkler in the central role. His combination of incisively dark singing with impressive comic acting is heroic. In its way the score is too, but with a hit (heavy) and miss (mostly) brutality.
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