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La vida breve / Gianni Schicchi (Opera North)

Scenic pot luck but musical glories in a rich double bill

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Anne-Sophie Duprels as Salud in La vida breve (Opera North)
© Bill Cooper

Director's theatre has its place; at its best it can reinvigorate a hackneyed story, and audiences who know their Carmen or Rigoletto may find they're stimulated – or at the very least intrigued – by a fresh take on a familiar classic. But when it's an opera that few in the audience will ever have seen before it can be a recipe for confusion. Not that such considerations have ever stopped Christopher Alden.

The New York-born director has revived the production of Manuel de Falla's rarely-performed one-acter, La vida breve (Life is brief), that he first staged for Opera North ten years ago, this time coupling it with a brand-new take on Puccini's indestructible comedy Gianni Schicchi. Poles apart musically and dramatically, they make a shrewd pairing.

Whereas Alden's twin brother David explores operas from the inside out and invariably stages what the music tells him, Christopher appears to open a score and say ‘What can I do with (or maybe even to) this?'. Inevitably, therefore, the composer's shimmering orchestrations that speak so vividly of sun-saturated rural Spain prompt him to relocate La vida breve to – where else? – a windowless factory lit by neon strips. Yes, it sort of works; but on Alden's terms, not de Falla's.

The straightforward storyline – simple village girl Salud loves local cad Paco, but he is betrothed to someone richer – survives in Alden's stylised account even if his rationale is mystifying. That fine French soprano Anne-Sophie Duprels portrays a gamine whose emotions have not yet blossomed beyond adolescence, and who deals with Paco's rejection by means of an extreme act of self-harm that Alden painfully draws out (chiefly, one feels, because it covers a lengthy orchestral passage that needs wallpapering).

"It's music that lifts the little neck-hairs"

An excellent cast does what it can to replace the sunshine that Alden has removed, and conductor Jac van Steen and the outstanding Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North sell the fabulous hour-long score for all its worth. It's music that lifts the little neck-hairs even as the direction raises hackles.

Tenor Daniel Norman, who excels as the factory's mournful, bullied transvestite (an Alden role reassignment, of course) reappears in Gianni Schicchi in an utterly different guise, as does Jesús Álvarez (the priapic Paco) along with Brian Bannatyne-Scott and the redoubtable Elizabeth Sikora.

This time Alden has come up with a winner. His imaginative contemporary staging, unorthodox and spacious, is loaded with wit and visual know-how, and each cast member creates an unforgettable vignette within it. Álvarez plays against the lyric plangency of his sweet tenor voice as a louche Rinuccio, and Jennifer France, who gets the big number, "O mio babbino caro", is pure chav.

Indeed, Alden's pitch for this black comedy of money-grubbing relatives seems to have been ‘my big fat gypsy funeral', and the magnificent baritone Christopher Purves as scheming Schicchi himself, moustachioed and lizard-suited, is merely the cleverest of a bad lot.

The designs by Charles Edwards are deceptively restrained. A dead mule hangs from the ceiling, the wall is adorned with frescoes, a bed comes and goes; yet the visual impact is immense thanks to Alden's shrewd integration of character and environment. It's the work of a maverick who's on song.