RUSSIAN composer Cesar Cui’s one act opera A Feast in Time of Plague, setting the text of a short play by Alexander Pushkin, was tailor-made for Covid times, but staging it on the day a former Prime Minister was being interrogated about his pandemic rule-breaking was a coincidence the Alexander Gibson Opera School could not have planned.

Less happily, the performing company was afflicted with cold and chest infections during rehearsals, as RCS Head of Opera Philip White explained in pre-show announcement, with one of the cast in the work’s companion piece on the double bill, Elena Langer’s Four Sisters, still unable to sing at all.

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If this production was severely disrupted by illness, the end result was well worth the perseverance. Guest conductor Lada Valesova made an immediate impact with Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes which prefaced the operas. It featured some fine solo clarinet and was accompanied by a three-man stage mime that dramatized the “conversation” between old and new music.

A Feast in Time of Plague was sung in Russian but surtitles from the late Stephen Mulrine’s Pushkin translation suggested a transplanting of its 1665 London plague setting to Scotland. However its central argument between baritone Ross Cumming’s Walsingham and Pawel Piotrowski’s Priest about the appropriateness of partying as the death toll rises could hardly have been more apposite for the day’s proceedings in the English capital.

Cumming showed again what a fine performer he is, with returning Polish mezzo Wiktoria Wizner (a 2021 graduate) and French soprano Marie Cayeux having the best of the rest of the score.

HeraldScotland: Megan Baker, Ross Cumming and Hannah Bennett in Elena Langer's Four Sisters at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, March 2023. Picture: Duncan McGlynnMegan Baker, Ross Cumming and Hannah Bennett in Elena Langer's Four Sisters at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, March 2023. Picture: Duncan McGlynn (Image: free)

Cayeux also had the victory role in Four Sisters, composed by UK-based Russian Elena Langer, who is best known for her recent Welsh National Opera work with David Pountney, Figaro Gets a Divorce. Despite the title, and the circumstances of the writing of the libretto by John Lloyd Davies, the comic Four Sisters owes as much to Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi as to Chekhov. With the contrasting mezzo voices of Megan Baker and Hannah Bennett as Irina and Olga, indisposed soprano Rosalind Dobson walked her part of Masha while Rebecca Murphy sang it from the side.

That compromise did nothing for the balance in the theatre, but Valesova and her assistant Emilie Godden kept everything on track, while the ensemble made the most of all the fun to be had with Langer’s music in director Max Hoehn’s sparkling and colourful staging. In the most difficult of times, the company pulled a couple of triumphs out of the bag.