WITH the opening of Stephen Lawless’s new production of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova on Tuesday, we come to the end of what has been a varied programme of new productions in Scottish Opera’s current season. But the days have long gone when the national company was the only show in town for lovers of quality opera. As well as some fine work by non-professional companies – often with a considerable amount of professional input in solo roles and with the staging and conducting – the output of the Alexander Gibson Opera School at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is of a standard that challenges any old-fashioned notions of what constitutes a “student production.”

I need to declare an interest before proceeding any further. There is a good reason why the two brilliant double-bills that have played at the Conservatoire so far this year have not had a Herald review from myself, in that a young baritone called Arthur Bruce has been in both of them, which created something of a conflict of interest. The good news for the RCS and its future students is that he is approaching the end of his studies, after which normal service will be resumed by his father. To his peer group and associates, I can only apologise and try to make some small amends here.

This past week (the final performances were last night) the coupling has been of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, staged in the AGOS Studio space by Maxine Braham with designer George Leigh. Braham has found in these two works, written almost three centuries apart, parallel tales of emblematic couples on either side of the Atlantic. Her production of the Bernstein stayed faithful to the 1950s of its creation but was widened from its domesticity to embrace a vision of the American Dream that continues to be so central to the politics of the US. The Purcell was staged as a TV chat show with more than a whiff of Big Brother’s Bit On The Side, the audience commentary that follows episodes of the incarceration programme. At the interval (before the Bernstein), there seemed to be some division of opinion about it amongst the audience, but it seemed to me a great success in making the story (leading up to that glorious aria) live anew in a highly amusing way – and the way in which each member of the chorus had a distinct character to express as a member of the studio audience made the approach ideal for all these potential soloists.

Less than two months ago the same cohort of students were in the New Athenaeum Theatre at the RCS with a double bill of Puccini’s comedy Gianni Schicchi and Poulenc’s bonkers modernist Les Mamelles de Tiresias, directed by James Bonas with design by Tom Paris and lighting by Rob Casey. In the larger space and with a more substantial budget, they were both a visual as well as a musical delight, the Puccini using faithfully-rendered Commedia dell’Arte props and costuming, and the Poulenc a stylish riot of colour and surrealist iconography.

As well as being productions that any opera house would be happy to have, the singing musicians onstage were also, of course, accompanied by players from the Conservatoire, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren in January, and by Anthony Kraus last week. Again the standard has been uniformly high, and the contrast between the period playing for the Purcell and the jazzy octet behind the Bernstein in the recent coupling spoke volumes about the range and adaptability of the current intake of young instrumentalists.

None of this is privileged information – the scarcity of tickets last week spoke of how Scottish opera-lovers know of this treasure on their doorstep. So if you want to catch the UK premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at the RCS in May, book early.