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Zanetto/Gianni Schicchi

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The wily old fraud has prospered of late, with Richard Jones's colourful staging as part of the Royal Opera's Il trittico currently being televised on BBC4 and with Liam Steel's blissfully hilarious Commedia production for English Touring Opera still fresh in the memory. Would Opera Holland Park's new stab at Puccini's comic one-acter prove to be a Gianni Schicchi too far? Not a bit of it.

Martin Lloyd-Evans directs his strong ensemble cast with good humour and a breeziness that befits OHP's canopied auditorium. As is customary these days with productions of this opera, we find ourselves not in the 13th-century Florence of Dante's story but in the indeterminate mid-nineteen-hundreds. On the walls of a dilapidated Florentine room the once-lilac paint has worn down to the wattle and the room's sole ocupant is breathing his last. Cue a silent, pre-opera dumb show during which  the old man's wailing relatives enter one by one to hang his final breath.

The most arresting entrance is that by the City of London Sinfonia at bar one of the score. This fine orchestra is the ace up Holland Park's sleeve, rock-solid and marinated in Italianate warmth after so many seasons at this address. In Manlio Benzi they are joined by a conductor who speaks their language, and their collaboration brims with melodic sweep and latin warmth. Musically we are in good hands.

There is no frailty within the cast, either. Simon Wilding's louche Betto was the pick of the mourners while the tenor Jung Soo Yun's vocal sturdiness allowed Rinuccio's paean to Florence to ring forth exaltantly. All ears turned to Lauretta when the moment came for her to sing ‘O mio babbino caro', and the gorgeous, Chianti soprano of Anna Patalong despatched Puccini's show-stopper with lyrical beauty. Alan Opie, needless to say, stole the show as Schicchi himself, dominating the action from his Jean Gabin-like arrival to the triumphant glee of his cackling farewell.

Susannah Henry's set has a big surprise up its sleeve at the end of Gianni Schicchi, and it serves that half of the double bill very well. Unfortunately the same décor has to do double service on the night, and its use as the backdrop for Mascagni's rarely-seen Zanetto is just one of the disappointing aspects in a staging that smacks of an afterthought – as though the more celebrated and technically intricate Puccini opera had sapped everyone's creative energy.

For some reason the wealthy Silvia (Janice Watson) inhabits a dilapidated Florentine room whose once-lilac paint has worn down to the wattle. A few Mucha posters attest to her fame. She is doomed to live a loveless life until the handsome Zanetto, a wandering minstrel, arrives in search of none other than the rich and celebrated Silvia. She falls for Zanetto but, unaccountably, she pretends to be someone else and sends him on his way. And that's it.

There is little of interest here beyond the rich perfume of the 40-minute score, which Lloyd-Evans stages with plodding ordinariness. To work at all as theatre Zanetto would require more directorial intervention than this. Granted, the production attempts a visual rationalisation of Silvia's behaviour by postulating a Rosenkavalier moment, echoing the ageing Marschallin's reason for releasing Octavian into the wild, but it's half-hearted.

Treated, say, with the aura of a dream play or the ardour of a folle passion it might be possible to concoct something of interest from Mascagni's meagre pickings; here though, Watson, none too fresh of voice, just roams about looking moody. Patricia Orr fares better as the young man, but neither singer can breathe much life into this moribund miniature.

- Mark Valencia


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