THE last 18 months of coronavirus lockdowns and protocols have taught us many things about our society. One particularly clear lesson is that live artistic performance is, for a great many of us, not an extravagant luxury, but a spiritual and emotional necessity.

As the vaccination programme enables increasing numbers of live productions to take place, the enthusiasm with which lovers of the performing arts are taking up the opportunities is palpable. That was certainly the case as Scottish Opera began its latest Opera Highlights tour in front of a sizeable and enthusiastic audience at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock last Tuesday night.

We tend to think of opera as being synonymous with spectacular, large-scale shows, complete with visually striking sets, full orchestras and casts often numbering in the dozens. Whilst such grand productions (like Scottish Opera’s marvellous, recent staging of Verdi’s Falstaff) are the stock-in-trade of our national opera company, the organisation is, rightly, proud of its smaller scale, touring works.

This highlights show seeks to emulate a certain Dutch beer brand, taking opera to the parts of Scotland that other companies cannot reach. Boasting a cast of just four singers, ably accompanied by pianist Fiona MacSherry, this one-hour jaunt through works by Mozart, Bizet and Tchaikovsky (among numerous others) will take in venues from Stornoway to Ayr, and many places in between.

READ MORE: Scottish Ballet set to impress across the country with Starstruck

The production is directed by accomplished, young opera director and librettist Jeanne Pansard-Besson, who is working with a diverse musical programme devised by Scottish Opera’s head of music Derek Clark. The director stages the various arias, duets and quartets with a sense of vitality, pace and continuity.

The frame for the selection, which ranges from the extremely famous (Bizet’s Carmen) to the all but forgotten (Julius Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney), is the human passions, ranging from love and lust, to love of nature. Indeed, the production might be titled the “Bare boards and a passion” tour, on account of its being performed with no set, minimal (if intelligently employed) costumes and props, and music played entirely on a humble upright piano.

At the outset, the male singers (Russian baritone Alexey Gusev and Scottish tenor Glen Cunningham) arrive on stage in contrasting pastel suits of pink and blue, to be joined by their female colleagues (American mezzo-soprano Lea Shaw and Welsh soprano Meinir Wyn Roberts) in wedding dresses. As they perform a happy quartet from Carl Maria von Weber’s 1820 opera Oberon, it is clear that Pansard-Besson is offering us, not a mere chamber concert, but carefully considered vignettes of operatic performance.

If the opening piece showcases the quartet’s tremendous complementary qualities, there are ample opportunities for the singers to express their individual talents. In an aria from Handel’s Serse, for example, a recumbent Shaw (who is currently a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist) sings King Xerxes’s song of praise to a tree with memorable subtlety of tone and depth of emotion.

For her part, Wyn Roberts performs an optimistic aria from Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette with a delightful lightness of expression. Her vocalisation is cheerful, as the piece requires, but also impressive, particularly at the top of her range.

For his aria from Otto Nicolai’s little-performed opera based upon Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Cunningham has ditched the pale blue suit, sauntering on to the stage wearing a t-shirt and deck shoes and clutching a bunch of wildflowers. He expresses the joys and anxieties of love in a performance that is, simultaneously, ruminative and delightfully sonorous.

Marvellous though these moments are, perhaps the most moving solo of the evening is Gusev’s resonating performance of the great aria of unrequited love from Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades. The baritone expresses the embattled love of his character Prince Yeletsky (whose fiancée, Lisa, is besotted with another man) with heartbreaking passion and anguish.

READ MORE: Wings Around Dundee: Flights of fancy in a bold journey of discovery

Gusev’s singing is flawless, as, almost entirely, is the show. However, with such an on-a-shoestring production, it is all but inevitable that one will feel some kind of lack. In this case, it comes in the shape of MacSherry’s instrument.

The pianist (who is also music director of the show) plays it with sensitive aplomb. However, the music occasionally stretches the capabilities of her upright beyond its limits, leaving one ruing the fact that the logistics of the tour cannot accommodate a bigger, more versatile instrument, such as a baby grand.

That said, such quibbles are soon forgotten as dressed, again, in formal attire, the brilliant quartet return for the closing number. Exhorting all and sundry to “Drink up! Drink Up!”, the singers give a delightful rendition of the Champagne Song from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

It is a fittingly up-beat finale to a wonderful evening of opera highlights.

Touring until October 2. For further information, visit: