thu 13/12/2018

La Vida Breve/Gianni Schicchi, Opera North | reviews, news & interviews

La Vida Breve/Gianni Schicchi, Opera North

La Vida Breve/Gianni Schicchi, Opera North

Exuberant comedy and mishandled tragedy in an uneven double bill

Buoso Donati's relatives pay a visitBill Cooper

The good news first: director Christopher Alden’s new production of Gianni Schicchi is quite brilliant, and one of the funniest, cleverest things you’ll see in an opera house. Puccini’s taut one-acter is difficult to mess up, but it takes some skill to present it this well. Alden’s version is full of pleasures. Like Rhys Gannon’s stroppy young Gheradino, who spends most of the action wearing headphones and playing on an iPad. Choreographer Tim Claydon’s mute, acrobatic Buoso Donati leaves this earth with some reluctance, his ghost continuing to haunt the stage. Victoria Sharp’s blingy Nella looks like Donatella Versace. These relatives are a nasty, greedy lot. While this is a contemporary updating, many of the details suggest that Alden has a deep respect for Fawlty Towers. Particularly an episode where the absent Sybil has to be impersonated by Connie Booth’s Polly.

You expect the trickster Schicchi to be portrayed as an elderly, beaky chancer. Instead we get Christopher Purves’s cocksure, strutting con artist (pictured right). He’s a magnificent creation; a lovable, sharply-dressed bruiser whose keen mind and big heart are instantly apparent. The fake deathbed sequence is brilliantly handled, but Purves is at his best in an earlier scene, capitulating to the demands made by daughter Jennifer France and prospective son-in- law Jesús Álvarez. France's showstopping “O mio babbino caro” is gorgeous, and her beau is an appealingly bookish, geeky presence. The delights come thick and fast: the closing, gratuitous snow flurry is a lovely touch, and Schicchi’s closing words are sweetly delivered. Fantastic, in other words. Alden’s ensemble cast act physically as if possessed, and Doey Lüthi’s neat costume designs convince. Puccini’s capricious, bubbling score is nicely conducted under Jac van Steen. It all works like a charm.

This is a double bill, and the first half, a revival of Alden’s 2004 production of Falla’s La vida breve, is nowhere near as successful. As a piece of stagecraft, it’s astonishing, and a treat for the eyes. However, the more audacious directorial decisions don’t serve this rarely performed opera well. What we see is always visually arresting, brilliantly choreographed and exquisitely sung. We’re not in a village foundry but a corrugated iron sweatshop, where the men loaf about and the women are hunched over sewing machines. It’s an unpleasant, sweaty environment, but one so cramped and crowded that it’s difficult to get any sense of who’s who. Voices emerge unexpectedly, and it can take sharp eyes to detect who is singing. Daniel Norman sounds glorious but looks ludicrous as a transvestite seamstress, and even more incongruous is Quirjin de Lang’s crimplene-clad flamenco singer (pictured below).

What we see ends up as more black comedy than tragedy. Anne Sophie Duprels sings beautifully as Salud, but her blood-drenched demise fails to convince. Falla’s sublime score is this production’s chief pleasure, with some wonderful writing for tuned percussion. The obbligato guitar is a delight. Opera North’s chorus excel. All is paced to perfection by Steen, and the big fortissimo explosion 30 minutes into the piece is startling. Elizabeth Sikora’s Grandmother almost steals the piece. Alden’s fussy reimagining makes this La vida breve an infuriating, confusing experience. But his Gianni Schicchi is so perfect that I’m inclined to forgive him.

The delights come thick and fast, and the closing, gratuitous snow flurry is a lovely touch

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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