Scottish Opera has recently been plunged into crisis, and its decision to change to a part-time basis (the alternative was to sack the orchestra) has seemed to some to suggest over-reaction and pique. It would be splendid - probably every critic felt - to be able to proclaim that the company's work is still triumphantly international, despite all its troubles. This season, it has not given cause for such enthusiasm; one constantly leaves the theatre filled with regret and frustration.
For its new La Belle Helene the company has brought in two French directors, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, a French conductor, Emmanuel Joel, and a French set designer, Christian Ratz. This ought to have guaranteed a real sharpness of wit and a knowing instinct for tempo. But no, the piece was sunk without trace in clowning and buffoonery, most of it lamentably unfunny. Each set was cluttered with furniture (bar the last-act seaside scene, where things began to improve), making it impossible for the chorus to dance as well as sing (Offenbach's numbers are, of course, mostly song- and-dance routines) and forcing them to resort to mere jigging about and hand-waving.
Wells had translated all of the original text, apparently, including the tedious game of Goose in Act 2, and the whole thing ran for an interminable three-and-a-half hours. It would have been bearable if only the music, with its sly speed-shifts that are scrupulously marked in the score, had been given just a touch of elastic, the relations of tempo grasped with just a grain of intelligence. The orchestra sounded distinctly unhappy. Perhaps they were preoccupied about job security.
The cast were excellent (though wasted on a half-baked production). Jonathan Veira was a hilarious Calchas, Tracey Welborn a lyric and credible Paris, John Mitchinson a suitably bumbling Menelaus and Gordon Wilson a yokel of an Achilles. Andrew Slater was a noisy and bombastic Agamemnon, and the two Ajaxes (James Drummond Nelson and Garry Magee) were a pair of public-school clots. Vocally, all were impressive.
Top marks, then, to the mainly British cast, especially the gorgeous leading lady; black marks to the mainly French high command. It seems a paradoxical verdict for a piece as quintessentially French as this.
In rep to Sat, Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141-332 9000); then touring