I have to admit here at the start of this review that the experience of opera is a relatively new one for me and that to date I have on the whole found my visits to performances by Scottish Opera an enjoyable experience into a performance art form that I had not taken the time before to experience (my loss). Unlike many reviewers, I simply do not have the technical or historical knowledge of opera to write my reviews from that perspective. What I hope to do is write a review which gives an overall impression of the performance and also one that hopefully encourages others like myself to come and experience opera for the first time. Sometimes, opera can seem daunting to a newcomer and there is no need for it to be so.
To date, the operas that I have been at have been the more classical ones, and Ines de Castro by James MacMillan (also conducting tonight) is my first experience of a modern opera and also an opera sung in English. Other than what is in the programme and what I read in a few online articles, I knew nothing about this opera, so tonight's experience of it is with totally new eyes.
This is a story of political tensions between Spain and Portugal in the 14th century, but the costume design for this performance is firmly set in the first half of the 20th century. In short, Portugal and Spain are heading for war and the fact that the Crown Prince of Portugal has taken a Spanish mistress (Ines de Castro) with whom he has fathered two children has not gone down well with the populace. At court, Pacheco an advisor to the King uses the opportunity to influence a weak-willed King into getting rid of Ines on political and national security grounds. The Prince goes off to war and, after an almost unbelievable victory over the Spanish, returns to find his lover, but it is too late as Ines has already been executed.
The story of Ines (the story may or may not be true) is a well known story in the Portuguese psyche and the phrase "it's too late, Ines is dead" is still in popular useage.
The main cast is small in this opera as the story involves only a few people in and around the Royal court for the most part. Tonight's performance was by
Stephanie Corley (Ines de Castro)
Kathleen Wilkinson (Nurse/Old Woman (Death)
Paul Carey Jones (Pacheco, advisor to the King)
Brindley Sherratt (King of Portugal)
Peter Wedd (Pedro, Crown Prince of Portugal)
Susannah Glanville (Blanca, Pedro's Wife)
Gary Griffiths (Executioner)
Georgia Dunn (Young Girl)
Much of the weight of tonight's show (as you would expect) rests on the shoulders of Welsh Soprano Stephanie Corley in the title role of Ines and it is a role that is performed with obvious technical vocal ability. Ines is undoubtably a difficult role for any singer to tackle as the music is at times challenging and the amount of time Ines is on stage as a character must also be physically demanding. I have to admit though that tonight I did slightly prefer Susannah Glanville in the role of the ousted wife. Nothing to do here with vocal abilities, but just the fact that Susannah gets the chance to play that wonderful moment where she slips into insanity as Blanca in a scene in Act II with Ines.
Both Brindley Sherratt (King) and Peter Wedd (Prince) put in fine performances too tonight, but for me they are overshadowed by Paul Carey Jones as Pacheco. Pacheco is simply to me a far more developed character than either The King or The Prince and has that slightly insane edge to him. Pacheco also gets some of the best lines in the Opera.
We can not of course forget Kathleen Wilkinson as the nurse/old woman. It is the old woman representing death itself as she comes to claim Ines and The King in Act Two that give this Opera much of it weight and mythological (almost Norse mythology/Wagnerian) overtones.
I have to admit that I found the whole story very dark and this was emphasised by the music. The subject matter is of course very dark. This is not a light comedy opera, so that fact that the performance left that impression on me maybe proves that it is working well as a piece of theatre in its own right.
Act 1 is pretty much the story of Ines discussing her love for The Prince with her nurse and the political manouvering in court leading up to the execution of Ines. For a great love story though, there just seemed to be no connection on stage between Ines and the Prince. It was almost as if they were strangers at times. Not knowing the material, I was also left wondering "where is the great love song?"
Act II is very dark and at times macabre. In this act Ines has the heads of her two slain children delivered to her in a bag. Ines gets executed and on finding this out the stricken Prince goes insane when he returns and takes his revenge on Pacheco (listen to The Executioner's song) and also has the body of Ines exhumed to take her rightful place beside his side at a state banquet that to me evoked shades of Norman Bates and his mother in Psycho.
Ines de Castro is a very dark piece of work that somehow is made even darker by the very sparse sets. The sets allow no distraction from the subject matter and maybe that is as it was meant to be.
If you judge an opera by the experience it gives to an audience then this certainly does the job. Without being an opera at all, this is a very dark and at times disturbing piece of performance theatre. If you have not seen this work before and are used to the lightness of some of the more well known classical operas then you are in for a different experience.
Review by Tom King