Drama masks, those potent faces of tragedy and comedy, are embodied by Puccini in the outer panels of his great operatic triptych. Midway through an epic spring tour, English Touring Opera’s double-bill of Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi (the central one-acter, Suor Angelica, is omitted) reaches the Maltings at Snape in marvellous shape and sets a high bar that the Royal Opera will do well to reach with its complete Il Trittico later this year.
Michael Rosewell conducts Ettore Panizza’s reduced orchestration of Puccini’s score, though you’d never know that from the rich waves of aural textures that swirl around James Conway’s austere staging of Il Tabarro. Bargemaster Michele’s quayside mooring on the Seine is evoked rather than depicted in designer Neil Irish’s forbidding wall of rusting, riveted sheet metal, so the focus is squarely on the singers in this primal tale of jealousy and murder. Julie Unwin is a troubled, unglamorous Giorgetta whose efforts at marital devotion ensure that when Michele (Simon Thorpe) yells ‘Sgualdrina!’ (Slut!), it is he, not she, who is stained by the insult.
As Luigi, the object of Michele’s distrust, Charne Rochford is a rich verismo tenor. He looks like a care-worn stevedore and sings, as does everyone else in this thrilling hour, with spine-tingling conviction. His brief love duet with Unwin is the only point at which Puccini allows passion to cut through the grim atmosphere of urban river life, and its very rarity sears the senses like blood spilt on snow.
The atmosphere is transformed after the interval as a brief orchestral introduction is punctuated by... is that laughter we hear? When the curtain rises, guffaws have morphed into groans and a cluttered Italian bedroom is revealed to be full of wailing mourners – a painted company of sweet-larynxed grotesques who proceed to lead us through a delirious hour of precision-tooled clowning.
For all their contrasts, and despite being helmed by two different directors (Liam Steel takes over for the physical comedy of Gianni Schicchi), the productions have in common a sure sense of idiom, mood and place. Much of the credit here goes to ETO’s ideally-cast team of performers, of whom Arwel Huw Morgan, Andrew Glover and Clarissa Meek appear in both operas. The pairing of Richard Mosley-Evans as Schicchi and Paula Sides as his daughter Lauretta (it is she who bags the night’s plum aria, ‘O mio babbino caro’), provides an irresistible double act at the heart of a delicious entertainment. Liam Steel plays up the opera’s Commedia dell’Arte heritage with a bustling stage, neat visual gags, outrageous make-up and artful comic timing. It’s rare for an opera production to be laugh-out-loud funny but here, in this simple tale of shady tricks and a contested will, the director’s inventiveness makes the audience fall out if its collective seat.
Here we are, a third of the way through 2011, and this is the richest night at the opera I’ve enjoyed anywhere this year. The tour still has a month and a half to run; it’s worth travelling many miles to catch it.
- Mark Valencia