Hearing Scottish Opera’s production of Massenet’s Thérèse in rehearsal

Inside Silver Cloud Studios on the edge of an industrial estate west of Glasgow, Scottish Opera rehearses for two concert performances of a rare opera by French composer Massenet.

The opera is Thérèse, a short two-act entertainment telling the story of a woman torn between her lover and her husband set in the context of the French Revolution. Until late last week I’d not been aware of it (no great shakes given my limited knowledge and experience of opera repertoire). Now by dint of a trip to Scotland to see final rehearsals, I find myself getting immersed in it – the preferred Thoroughly Good Way.

The 100-strong company fill an interior flooded with white light, slightly raised above which conductor Alexandra Cravero looks out across a seemingly vast expanse of musicians, singers, and production staff.

It’s a sight that sets my heart racing. There is so much urgency and excitement to be experienced in the room. At the same time its something that underlines the scale of what’s involved in producing even concert performances of opera.

A sight reminiscent of those TV programmes that promise to transform a hoarder’s home into a tranquil clutter-free space. But before they do, the beneficiary of the makeover is confronted with the extent of their stash all laid out on the floor in a warehouse.

At Silver Cloud Studios, 100 people are all in one room, engaged in a day’s work in preparation for two live performances later in the week. All this, here and now, in front of me, for two concert performances of an opera most haven’t heard of. Some might see that as an indulgence. It makes me wonder whether anyone even contemplated inventing an orchestra today, if we hadn’t already had them as part of our musical experience for the past three hundred years.

There was a range of different seats I could have sat in when I arrived. It’s during one of the loud sections (characteristic of Massenet’s writing I now understand) in rehearsals that I realise I chose the right position, sat behind the cellos and basses. Better there than beside the brass. Dear God, they’re loud.

On a first listen, composer Massenet’s writing reveals a master orchestrator, drawing on the innovation Hector Berlioz is famed for introducing into his symphonic writing, and using it with breathtaking efficiency and concision. In the comparatively boomy acoustic of Silver Cloud, all the detail in his score is there to savour just a few feet away.

I follow along with a copy of the conductor’s score, marvelling at angry growls in the string section heard in the opening Prelude, and punctuating ‘staples’ in the powerful brass. High oboes track low ones threaten menace when the story demands, and I am sure I hear something vaguely eastern when clarinets and flute play as something as simple as a downward scale in harmony together. There is colour and texture swirling all around. Well worth the early rise, flight from London and taxi ride to hear at 11am.

Alexandra Cravero

At one point conductor Alexandra Cravero stops to focus on the sound produced by the strings Act 2’s Le dangeur s’accroit (the danger increases). Attention is focused on the violins – the cellos are asked to stop playing for a moment, whilst a bed of gentle chords played by the upper strings is finessed. Once the right emphasis has been agreed upon between violins and conductor, so the soaring cello section solo topped by cor anglais and the soloist’s – Shenghzi Ren’s playing Therese’s lover Armand – is reintroduced. When the melody is repeated one final time before the end of duet between Armand and Thérèse, this time played on a solo cello, the effect makes me want to wrap my arms around the section leader.

This simple rehearsal technique reminds me of how simple repetition of short sequences themselves viscerally appealing to listen to has the effect of quickly embedding something new into the consciousness, in a way that sitting in an audience and listening more ‘passively’ often fails too. It’s how I became more familiar (and essentially fell for) Benjamin Britten’s compositional technique back in Aldeburgh listening to endless rehearsals of Rape of Lucretia and feeling as a result as though I knew the work inside out.

The opening of Act 2 – a stately waltz with an oddly dark feel – has a similar effect as I listen to it for the first time in rehearsal. Delicacy, and precision underpin the playing, achieved by a sense of unity from the entire string section. Like the Proms just a few days ago, this is a delicious listening experience.  So to the sound of the ‘scrunchy’ chords in the woodwind – a sound like they’re searing something soft and delicate before Thérèse sings Jour de Juin, jour d’ete. Sounds I want to touch. Where does that kind of writing come from? Does a composer hear that in their head before they write it? And if they do does it ever turn out to be what they heard in the first place?

But it is in the loud sections – something I now know having done a small amount of research into the man’s work – where the most powerful connections are made. First in the brass where the effect is to emphasise and punctuate. In fact, it is a terrifying sound every time they play as one. And I’m sure I see a glint in the second and third trumpeter’s eyes whenever they do so. Such musical interjections are a matter of obvious pride for a section of the orchestra that often has to spend a lot of time counting silent bars before they’re required to play.

Safest position – behind the basses

Soloists Dingle Yandell, Shenghzi Ren, and Justina Gringyte seem to have the biggest job being heard above the powerful score. Justina is often seen cupping her ears as she sings, Shenghzi gesticulating with his arms to enunciate the phrase. All of them are unaware of the effect their voices have on me sat listening across the other side of the room. Here and now I think I’m finally understanding what it is that gets people so exercised about the voice. When they hit their top notes it feels as though the entire space is resonating in response to their voices. It hits me physically in the chest. There is pleasure and release whenever they deliver their critical climactic note.

And the ‘six strong men’ (as proudly described to me by the Head of Casting sat at her temporary desk in the corner of the rehearsal room) whose ensemble singing sends a charge up my spine. I look at the score to confirm what I suspected – soldiers. They sound beefy, decisive, and possibly even ever-so-slightly intimidating. A measure of the effectiveness of the score and their collective interpretation.  

During what feels like a late lunch break for me I speak to a buzzing conductor clearly loving her debut project with Scottish Opera, who generously shares details of her responsibilities directing a big group of musicians through Massenet’s score, including working with Chinese tenor Shenghzi Ren’s French accent. There is joy and enthusiasm and pride evident in her tone of voice.

After that, a brief conversation with soprano Justina. I spend most of the brief interview distracted by her eyelashes which seem to widen her eyes and, inexplicably, add an extra charge of excitement to her already electric presence. More than commitment to her role as an ‘advocate’ for Therese, it is her enthusiasm for performance that shines during our brief exchange. It completes the picture painted by the sound of her voice heard earlier in rehearsals, something immediate and brimming with energy.

Scottish Opera’s Thérèse premiered on the first night of the Lammermuir Festival, Thursday 8 September. The performance is repeated in Perth Concert Hall on Saturday 10 September.

The Lammermuir Festival runs from 8-19 September and features concerts given by pianist Jeremy Denk and Tom Poster, cellist Laura van Heijden, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In light of the death of Queen Elizabeth II announced on Thursday 8 September, all concerts will be preceded by a minute’s silence. The concert on the National Day of Mourning is cancelled.