Sunday, 4 March 2018

Contrasting double: Puccini's Il tabarro & Gianni Schicchi from ETO

English Touring Opera - Puccini: Gianni Schicchi (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
English Touring Opera - Puccini: Gianni Schicchi (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Puccini Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi; Sarah-Jane Lewis, Charne Rochford, Craig Smith, Andrew Slater, Galina Averina, Luciano Botelho, Clarissa Meek, dir: James Conway, Liam Steel, cond: Michael Rosewell; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire.
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 02 2018 Star rating: 4.5
A claustrophobically powerful account of Il tabarro paired with wonderful physical theatre in Gianni Schicchi

English Touring Opera - Puccini: Il Tabarro - Sarah-Jane Lewis, Charne Rochford(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Puccini: Il Tabarro - Sarah-Jane Lewis, Charne Rochford
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
For its third production of its Spring 2018 tour opening at the Hackney Empire on 2 March 2018, English Touring Opera revived its 2011 double bill of Puccini's Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi, a pairing which has some historical precedent; as early as 1920 opera companies were missing Suor Angelica out of Puccini's Il Trittico. Il Tabarro was directed by James Conway, and Gianni Schicchi directed by Liam Steel, and both operas were designed by Neil Irish, with Michael Rosewell conducting.

In Il tabarro Craig Smith was Michele, Sarah-Jane Lewis was Giorgetta and Charne Rochford was Luigi, with Timothy Dawkins, Andrew Glover, Clarissa Meek, Galina Averina and Luciano Botelho. In Gianni Schicchi, Andrew Slater was Gianni Schicchi, Galina Averina was Lauretta, Clarissa Meek was Zita, Luciano Botelho was Rinuccio with Andrew Glover, Joanna Skillett, Bradley Travis, Timothy Dawkins, Ed Ballard, Emma Watkinson, Maciek O'Shea, and Dominic Walsh.

Neil Irish's set rather effectively provided a single framework for the two operas. For Il Tabarro we had the huge side of the quay where Michele's barge is moored, with a walkway at the top which was used for the ballad singer (Dominic Walsh) and the young lovers (Galina Averina and Luciano Botelho). For Gianni Schicchi, this turned round to form the outer wall of Buoso's house with the walkway becoming roof terrace where Lauretta (Galina Averina) gets banished. A neat and effective solution. The strong vertical back wall also formed a fine backdrop for the voices.

English Touring Opera - Puccini: Il Tabarro - Craig Smith (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Puccini: Il Tabarro - Craig Smith (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
The setting provided a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere for Il Tabarro which aptly caught the work's intense, concentrated drama. Though the opera is full of smaller character roles, which were well caught here, James Conway's production very much concentrated on the claustrophobic central drama of Giorgetta (Sarah-Jane Lewis), Michele (Craig Smith) and Luigi (Charne Rochford), and the production was full of small but very telling gestures, all magnified by the closeness of the setting.

Sarah-Jane Lewis made a striking Giorgetta, her relatively placid demeanour counterbalanced by the wonderfully rich timbre of her voice which sounds as if it is well on the way to being a real spinto soprano. It was her articulation of the music's strong lines which brought out the passion which swirled underneath, and only occasionally did Giorgetta allow it to show on the surface, stolen moments with Charne Rochford's Luigi. I especially loved the dance when, after stumbling through with Andrew Glover's Tinca, Lewis's Giorgetta goes on to dance perfectly with Charne Rochford's Luigi, the two showing how erotic a perfectly executed and apparently very proper dance could be. When talking to Craig Smith's forbidding Michele, Lewis's Giorgetta entirely shut down, closing off the painful past. Conway's view of the love-triangle was not as clear-cut as some, and there was a fascinating moment towards the end of the drama when you sense Giorgetta might be warming to Michele again, but it was too late.

English Touring Opera - Puccini: Il Tabarro - Sarah-Jane Lewis, Clarissa Meek (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Puccini: Il Tabarro - Sarah-Jane Lewis, Clarissa Meek
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
In Charne Rochford's Luigi, Lewis had a strong and well-balanced partner. Like Lewis, Rochford's voice seems well on the way to developing into a spinto tenor and though he is covering Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi during the tour, Rochford clearly had the heft to make Luigi's powerful line work. When Luigi erupts in a solo about the difficulties of life, the sheer passion Rochford brought to the music was stunning and he rightly drew applause. This was a notable achievement, and both her an Lewis caught the way that their guilty passion erupted only when allowed, yet Rochford aptly captured the way Luigi was constantly under pressure.

Craig Smith's Michele was severe and controlled (and perhaps by implication controlling), but there was no doubting his passion. The final dialogue with Lewis was heartbreaking in the way you could feel the passion and the tension between two people who could no longer communicate. The final scene, with Charne Rochford hidden under Craig Smith's huge coat, was the very first time that I have seen the stage directions executed properly, and it made a powerful final image.

Clarissa Meek and Timothy Dawkins made a strongly characterised pairing as Frugola and Talpa. Meek brought out bag-lady Frugola's strength and purpose, but also the sense of neediness in the character. Andrew Glover's Tinca was also well delineated with his over-reliance on the bottle. A rather neat link was provided with Gianni Schicchi as the young lovers, Luciano Botelho and Galina Averina, serenading each other on the top of the quayside turned out to be Rinuccio and Lauretta.

Il tabarro is a strong and concentrated score, and the performance really gave us a powerfully intense experience as the performers brought out not only the tight drama of the piece but also Puccini's wonderful lyricism which offsets it.

English Touring Opera - Puccini: GIanni Schicchi (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Puccini: Gianni Schicchi - the relatives (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Gianni Schicchi is, by intention, a deliberate contrast. The setting here was the same early 20th century period as Il tabarro, with some wonderfully stylish dresses for the three older women, Zita (Clarissa Meek), Nella (Joanna Skillett) and La Ciesca (Emma Watkinson). But director Liam Steel had introduced a twist and all the relatives had white, commedia dell'arte style make-up whereas Lauretta (Galina Averina) and her father, Gianni Schicchi (Andrew Slater) wore relatively ordinary make-up.

Steel combined this with a strongly physical staging so that the ensemble of relatives were often given a group reaction, with a great deal of stylised movement. Whilst each member of the group, Zita (Clarissa Meek), Gherardo (Andrew Glover), Nella (Joanna Skillett), Getto (Bradley Travis), Simone (Timothy Dawkins), Marco (Ed Ballard) and La Ciesca (Emma Watkinson), was given a distinct personality, they functioned more as an ensemble rather than a series of distinct characters so instead of a welter of naturalistic action, this was very much stylised physical comedy which dramatised the extreme reactions of the relatives to the events of the day.

English Touring Opera - Puccini: Galina Averina (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Puccini: Gianni Schicchi - Galina Averina
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Into this came Andrew Slater's relatively straight-forward rather wide-boy Gianni Schicchi, his costume carefully placing him (three-piece working man's suit and bowler hat).  Slater's range of gestures was rather less extreme, but he has a gift for neat comedy and brought out the sense that Schicchi's wiliness was more natural common sense than any gift for extremes. This was a funny performance, but one which took its place in the wider ensemble, which made the drama of the piece stronger and created less of the 'star-vehicle' style production.

Luciano Botelho and Galina Averina made a charming pair of lovers, he rather intense and anxious, she rather less dim than usual. Averina's 'O mio babbino caro' was delightfully sung, with a vibrant sense of line.

As Zita, Clarissa Meek had great fun with this beautifully observed harridan, whilst Joanna Skillett and Emma Watkinson formed the duo from hell, very polite and very extreme, complemented by their husbands Andrew Glover and Ed Ballard. Bradley Travis made Betto's moments in the limelight count (Puccini's writing is beautifully detailed, giving everyone their moments), and whilst Timothy Dawkins' Simone did everything required of him I could have rather done without the extremes of the fright wig and daft old man gestures.

The ancillary characters were all commedia dell'arte style too, with Maciek O'Shea, Dominic Walsh, Ian Beadle and Jamie Rock going to delightful extremes as Spinelloccio, Ser Amantio and the witnesses.

 In the pit, Michael Rosewell conducted reduced orchestrations, but the orchestra still featured double woodwind, two horns, two trumpets, trombone and percussion with 19 strings. The result was a powerful and richly dramatic sound. Rosewell brought out the lyricism of Puccini's drama in Il tabarro, with soaring melodies to complement the voices, and in Gianni Schicchi, lively pointed details brought out the comedy in the drama.

English Touring Opera - Puccini: Gianni Schicchi (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Puccini: Gianni Schicchi with Craig Smith in title role covering for Andrew Slater
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
This was a very strong pairing. So strong in fact, that I regretted that time and resources meant that we had to be deprived of Suor Angelica, thus completing Il trittico.

Elsewhere on this blog:

  • Beyond an auspicious debut: I chat to French Horn player Ben Goldscheider - interview
  • A return to the world of sleep and dreams: Robert Carsen's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream  (★★★½) - opera review
  • The complete piano works of John McCabe - volume 1 (★★★½) - CD review
  • Handelian celebration with the Foundling Hospital Anthem  (★★★½) - concert review
  • Bach on the piano, Sandro Ivo Bartoli in Bach's smaller pieces (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Well worth crossing the Red Sea for: Rossini's Mosè in Egitto from Chelsea Opera Group (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Music, myth and time: Karen Cargill and the Scottish Ensemble at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • A varied career: our interview with violinist Thomas Gould finds him in a thoughtful mood - interview
  • Má vlast: Jiri Belohlavek's last recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra - CD review (★★★★)
  • Notable recital debut disc from French Horn player Ben Golscheider - Cd review (★★★★)
  • 18 years after its premiere, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking receives its first UK performance - Opera review (★★★½)
  • Gerstein plays Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F - CD review (★★★★)
  • Satyagraha: Philip Glass's opera at ENO - Opera review (★★★★)
  • Musical Arcadia: Handel at Vauxhall on Signum Classics - CD review (★★★★)
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