Life is a Dream; The Rake's Progress; Scottish Chamber Orchestra; Die Zauberflöte – review

Argyle Works, Birmingham; Theatre Royal, Glasgow; City Halls, Glasgow; Royal Academy of Music, London

This time we didn't have to put paper bags on our heads but there were other skirmishes. Shoved aside by a man in a kilt, side-stepping a blood-spattered vicar, bumping into a funeral cortege and discovering that the woman next to you in a knitted twinset and carrying a bucket is part of the cast: these are the familiar hazards of a night at the opera courtesy of Graham Vick and his Birmingham Opera Company, who have been staging peripatetic productions in unusual venues for the past quarter of a century. Their latest, which opened last Wednesday in a disused warehouse, was the world premiere of Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton's Life is a Dream, based on Calderón's famous play La vida es sueño (1635).

Since its inception, BOC has grown from a tiny touring enterprise, silencing the sceptics in 1991 with a scaled-down version of Wagner's Ring, to a gargantuan undertaking involving hundreds of people from the local community working alongside professional soloists and orchestra. Votzek (2001), as Berg's Wozzeck was renamed, brought street violence into the theatre at close and terrifying quarters. With Fidelio in a big top (2002) came the unnerving paper-bag episode to suggest incarceration. There is no point hoping you can be a bystander. Everyone, even the lame and fragile, must participate.

Many of these earlier productions were arranged for chamber orchestra forces by Dove, now a veteran of community opera around the UK (not forgetting that his opera Flight enjoyed success on Glyndebourne's main stage in 2005). The Spanish Golden Age play Life is a Dream is a powerful allegory about a king who locks his newborn son away for life because of a prophecy that he will bring disaster to the realm, then has to deal with the consequent lies, violence and distorting interplay of reality, dream and fate.

If the abiding message is clear – that we should strive for goodness – the plot is not. A proper programme synopsis would have helped. A taut play became long-winded as an opera, episodic rather than cumulative. The physicality of the cast instead became the dramatic focus, especially Eric Greene as the bestial, sweat-drenched prince Segismund and Wendy Dawn Thompson as the jailer's daughter Rosaura, in skin-tight slit dress and singing beautifully while perched on an iron bed as it was wheeled crazily through the crowd.

In a long evening with much else to fill our minds, from keeping warm and avoiding stray bodies to hoping the fearless Donna Bateman's bridal gown wouldn't fall off, it was often hard to follow the story. Bateman, an agile soprano who sang Cunégonde in BOC's Candide and Marzelline in Fidelio, did later strip to nearly nothing in a gang rape, but I was too far from the action at that point to say how or why.

The music, conducted by William Lacey and excellently played by an orchestra sitting in a mini bullring, is burblingly melodic, with some impassioned arias and big-hearted, musical theatre-style lusty choruses. The impact nonetheless is patchy and the ending anti-climactic. Paul Nilon, in Royle Family cardigan and paper crown, was thoughtful and touching as the king, and Keel Watson as the burly jailer added authority. Graham Vick, the hero of BOC who pours his soul and imagination into these shows, had won the avid commitment of every single singer and actor, of all ages and abilities. It was their night. Next up: Mittwoch from Stockhausen's opera cycle Licht, 22-25 August.

David McVicar, like Vick before him, is considered a maverick, but wildness was kept in check in his new production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress for Scottish Opera, conducted by Sian Edwards. In the case of The Rake (1951), straightforwardness is definitely a bonus: Stravinsky's neoclassical score, with its rhythmic dangers, citric harmonies and strange bursts of lyricism, provides robust counterpoint to the familiar tale of a rake's rise and fall. So, too, does Auden and Kallman's crisp libretto, without any need to update the Georgian setting via Hollywood or Hong Kong to labour the point that money brings misery.

McVicar's regular designer, John Macfarlane, has created a seedily elegant London – think of Fournier Street, Spitalfields – with a hint of toy theatre and inventive period costume. Colours, despite an excess of pink, are muted and a painterly drop cloth depicts a skeleton the size of a dinosaur, effective if none too subtle as a warning against life's vanities. In a deft touch, Rakewell (Edgaras Montvidas) looks unnervingly like a young twin of his devilish tormentor Nick Shadow (a bristling, arch Steven Page), with the same high forehead, sharp cheekbones and penetrating eyes. Both the Lithuanian tenor and the British baritone gave incisive performances which could hardly be bettered. Carolyn Sampson was a sweet and tender Anne Trulove.

Yes, there was plenty in the way of freaks and dildos and debauchery. Mother Goose's bare, melon-sized breasts mirrored her high-piled wig, frontage and fontage vying for attention. Yet since part of the action takes place in a brothel no one can object. There is little you wouldn't find in Hogarth's original paintings or in the current Zoffany show at the Royal Academy in London. This is a pacy and unpreachy show, expertly delivered by all.

In the same weekend, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra gave the world premiere, in Glasgow and Edinburgh, of Sally Beamish's percussion concerto Dance Variations, a set of seven variations on a literary seven deadly sins theme, using the medieval "Dies Irae" plainchant as a touchstone. The soloist was Colin Currie, whose artistry has inspired a catalogue of new works for the medium and who danced his way through tango and swing to pavane and galliard, virtuosic on everything from marimba to maracas and bottle chimes.

When a performance of Die Zauberflöte succeeds so brilliantly you immediately want to go again, something has worked: only too rare with Mozart's most enigmatic opera. The secret here was a young cast (I saw the second) in an intimate space, conducted by the wise Mozartian Jane Glover. All the main roles were superbly taken – any may be a star of the future – as were the cameos. Could you find a more expressive, more lyrically sung First Armed Man than Stuart Jackson? The action was updated by director Stephen Barlow and designer Yannis Thavoris to the shiny 1980s (the new 50s?): preppies and yuppies, pink bumbags and leggings, Sony Walkmans and ghetto blasters. Oh how we loved them.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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