English Touring Opera at Snape Concert Hall (and touring)
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.
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.
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
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