Opera: Param Vir Double-Bill Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Opera: Param Vir Double-Bill

Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Param Vir's two operas, Snatched by the Gods and Broken Strings, were commissioned by the Munich Biennale (like Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek) and first performed in Amsterdam in 1992. They received their UK premieres at the Almeida four years later. Scottish Opera has now shown remarkable vision in staging new productions of them and has been rewarded by a spectacular evening of music-theatre.

Vir writes as brilliantly for voices as for instruments. While the two scores show that he admires Berg (the drowning from Wozzeck), Britten (Tadzio from Death in Venice) and Messiaen (ornithological instrumentation passim), these signal where he comes from: his healthy sense of his own musical identity is unthreatened by references to his peers.

At Wednesday's first night (the first of only three performances), Richard Farnes conducted passionate readings of both works. The orchestra responded enthusiastically. Just occasionally, they drowned the singers, particularly in the opening work. Perhaps the Theatre Royal's newly sunken, enlarged pit is less help with small-scale ensembles?

In the first opera, a widow sets off on a pilgrimage in a boat. When her young son insists on coming along, she curses him ("The seas can have you"). A storm threatens the pilgrims and the other passengers throw him overboard to appease the gods. The cast was led by the remarkable mezzo Rebecca de Pont Davies as the widow and by Gwion Thomas as the rick Brahmin Maitra, with a faultless "backing group" of pilgrims.

The second piece, Broken Strings, tells the story of a competition between two musicians to play before the king: the smug, young virtuoso Musil (Stephen Rooke, a brilliantly smooth tenor) and the self-doubting, elderly Guttil (a moving, selfless performance by baritone Richard Lloyd Morgan). The musicians, in this production, play identical instruments; their arts were neatly differentiated in the stylised ways they played them - glamorous, acrobatic swoops to throw fistfuls of notes in the air, or intense communing. If you've ever wondered what the Movement Director on the castlist acutally means, this was an object lesson in communication

Philippe Giraudeau also invented apt dances for the three creatures summoned by Guttil's playing, the Elephant, the Fish and the Peacock, vivid creations, still dazzling in the mind's eye. Susan Gorton's redhead elephant was both touching and comic; her dance, in a taupe silk-velvet trouser suit, with a scarlet handkerchief in each hand, will remain one of 1998's most memorable operatic images. She was evenly matched by Ann Archibald as the expert coloratura soprano fish, shimmying in a shiny grey rubber evening dress (with tail), and by Alexander Anderson-Hall as the tenor Peacock, dazzling in jewel-blue silk suit. All wore astonishing (uncredited) wigs.

For once, uniting director and designer in one person, Antony McDonald, did not mean mere decoration: here, every element contributed towards telling the stories, pungently and wittily. McDonald's visual aesthetic is both richly inventive and fresh, owing little to his contemporaries' cartoon arte povera. In a sane world, BBCtv and Channel 4 would compete to film this double-bill. As it is, even Radio 3 can't afford to broadcast it. Meanwhile, no one within striking distance of Edinburgh should miss the last performance, while everyone who cares about new opera owes Scottish Opera a vote of thanks for their enterprise.

Antony Peattie

Last performance: Wed 7.15pm, Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131-529 6000)