Music: Igor Stravinsky / Giacomo Puccini
Choreographer / Director: Jeanguy Saintus / Christopher Alden
Conductor: Garry Walker
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
What sells the tickets for this double bill is probably Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which famously caused ‘terrific uproar” (and not in a good way) at its 1913 premiere in Paris. The music is now so familiar to us that it’s hard to imagine it causing fights to break out amongst the normally well-behaved opera crowd. What it is, though, is well-loved, and the opportunity to hear it played by an 80-strong (or so) orchestra, paired with a newly choreographed version of the ballet, is a treat.
Jeanguy Saintus’s version draws out the pagan heart of the piece, visceral and violent it celebrates the fresh and the fertile. Dancers in white with painted hands – the green of new shoots, the red of pounding blood – rise and fall, turn in frenzied circles and rut like stags. In the second part, wearing voluminous skirts, brightly coloured inside like flowers yet to bloom, they conjure up the light, the growth and the fertility of spring. The piece is surprisingly traditional at times – nobody’s railing against modernity now – but in its wilder moments, these often spectacularly lit by Richard Moore, it creates some spectacular visuals and high emotion.
Maybe the house sold out for Puccini though. Gianni Schicchi is a one-act opera previously unknown to this reviewer, probably rarely performed due to its length – awkward to fit into the standard theatre schedule. Although this coupling isn’t an obvious one, and there is little synergy between the two pieces, they somehow sit rather beautifully together. Where the Rite of Spring provides an emotional punch, Gianni Schicchi counters it with its rowdy comedy.
Buoso Donati (Tim Claydon) is not a well man, and his money-grabbing family know it. At the end of his life they’re all there, waiting to find out how well they’ll do out of his will. When they discover he’s left his considerable wealth to the monastery, they call in con-man Gianni Schicchi to sort our their problem. In tow is Gianni’s daughter Lauretta (Tereza Gevorgyan) who just happens to be the (unacceptable) sweetheart of Rinuccio (Diego Silva) one of the younger members of the Donati family. In a suitably unlikely ruse, the family tell the notary that Donati is much better but needs to make a will, and, in the darkness of his bedroom, Schicchi impersonates the old man and shares out his cash, his land, and his beloved mule between the obnoxious family…finally bequeathing the biggest hand out to himself, thus securing a future for the young lovers.
Gianni Schicchi is based on an episode told in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Tim Claydon, shedding the nightshirt of the fast-fading Buoso, becomes an impish, ever-present Dante, hovering above the action. Claydon is a fine physical actor, scaling the set, hanging upside-down from an aerial rope or pacing like Death with a huge axe. The well-dressed, self-professed nouveau riche, family ensemble also play brilliantly for laughs. The matriarch, the glamourous younger cousin, the spiv, the sassy kid. They are a gaggle of well-drawn characters, squabbling amongst themselves when their ‘brilliant’ plan starts to fall apart. It’s really fun to watch them unravel.
The opera is beautifully Directed by Christopher Alden, the glorious visual storytelling leaving little need most of the time for the surtitles – and at times it’s hard to keep up with them with so much going on.
Amongst all of it, though, is Puccini’s wonderful score, steadily driving the narrative, then punctuated with moments of beauty as Rinnucio and Lauretta profess their love for one another, individually and then together in a short but glorious duet. The ‘ah! It’s this one’ aria from this opera is O Mio Babbini Caro (Oh My Dear Papa). Tereza Gevorgyan delivers it marvellously and miserably, huddled against a wall. It’s bleak and beautiful.
This coming together of two Leeds-based companies – Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre to create this double-bill – is just at the Lowry for one night, but you can still catch it in Newcastle and Nottingham – and it’s highly recommended that you do.
Reviewed on 8 March 2019 | Image: Tristram Kenton