Orlando, Theatre Royal, Glasgow<br/>Aronowitz Ensemble, The Forge, London<br/>Pagliacci, King's Head Theatre, London

Scottish Opera performs a victory roll with its Handel on a shoestring
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The Independent Culture

Harry Fehr's pithy, poignant production of Orlando shows Scottish Opera on defiant form.

Money is tight, with just three performances scheduled in Glasgow, and only two in Edinburgh. But as Welsh National Opera slumbers, Scottish Opera continues to stretch – coaxing its orchestra into Handel's chiaroscuro soundworld under Baroque specialist Paul Goodwin, and trusting its audience to embrace the cool, clinical sweep of Yannis Thavoris's designs and accept the hero's transposition from love-crazed paladin to combat-fatigued RAF pilot. The madness remains, but instead of magic, the cure is electroconvulsive therapy.

Where Fehr's 1940s-set Blackheath Halls community opera production of The Elixir of Love emphasised the pluck and resourcefulness of those on the home front, Orlando examines the pressures of heroism. Weary of fighting and besotted with the American heiress Angelica (Sally Silver), Orlando (Tim Mead) is plagued by visions of Edward VIII (projections designed by Andrzej Goulding), whose abdication represents the moral dereliction of those who abandon duty for love. Zoroastro (Andreas Wolf) is here a neurologist, Dorinda (Claire Booth) a nurse, Medoro (Andrew Radley) the injured object of both her and Angelica's devotion. Romantic echoes of A Matter of Life and Death are dispelled when it becomes clear that Zoroastro's aim is not to heal but simply to send Orlando back to fight.

With smooth transitions from scene to scene, and brilliantly detailed character work from the five singers and six actors, Fehr's production glides briskly but sympathetically through the corridors of Thavoris's Art Deco hospital. Despite the farcical coincidences of exit and entrance in Act III, Handel's genius is such that the human condition remains the focus. Mead's bone-china legato and spitfire coloratura are impeccable throughout, and all the voices are stylishly supported, although it's perhaps too easy to hear which passages Goodwin rehearsed the most. The Scots have a long history of loving Orlando. "I never in all my life heard a better piece of musick" wrote Sir John Clerk of Penicuik in 1733. Here's hoping this production will be revived.

The penultimate concert in The Aronowitz Ensemble's residency at The Forge, Camden, took the listener from the dazzling pop and spit of Salvatore Sciarrino's Notturni brillanti for solo viola (Lily Francis) to the night-scented arpeggios of Schubert's Notturno (Tom Poster, Guy Johnston and Magnus Johnston), and on to the fretful stirrings of Bartok's Fifth String Quartet and Schoenberg's shame-drugged idyll, Verklärte Nacht. Boccherini's rowdy Variazioni sulla Ritirata notturna di Madrid offered comic relief, while Poster's arrangement of Strauss's Morgen brought all seven players together for a cheesy sunrise. With such an absurd abundance of talent in this ensemble, it's a bitter shame that the repertoire for six strings and piano is so slender. What price a new commission from Sciarrino, I wonder?

Back at the King's Head, Islington, OperaUpClose add Leoncavallo's seamy shocker Pagliacci to their season. Though there are significant musical compromises, Anna Gregory's punchy modern-dress staging is the company's best production to date, using the tiny auditorium boldly in Acts I and II, and spilling out into the bar for a lyrical pas de deux amid the drinkers as Leoncavallo's lush Intermezzo cascades from the speakers. The contrast between an orchestral recording and the brittle sound of the onstage piano, cello and clarinet is striking: the Intermezzo is a dream, the rest is a crime-report. In a cast largely picked for acting ability, Katie Bird (Nedda) stands out for the tenacity and intensity of her singing. I'd forgotten what a tight and brutal piece this is. Verismo, indeed.

'Pagliacci' (020-7478 0160)to 31 Mar

Next Week:

Anna Picard hits Hackney as English Touring Opera hits the road with Gianni Schicchi and Il Tabarro

Classical Choice

London Sinfonietta unveils a new Gerald Barry work alongside pieces by Adès, Berio and Per Norgard at Queen Elizabeth Hall (Thur). Kirill Karabits conducts the Bournemouth Sym-phony Orchestra and Sergey Khachatryan in Berg's violin concerto, Webern/ Bach's Ricercar and Beethoven's Eroica Symphony at The Lighthouse, Poole (Tue), Cheltenham Town Hall (Wed) and The Anvil, Basingstoke (Fri).