A decade or so ago Opera North staged their groundbreaking “Eight Little Greats” season of operatic “shorts”. The operas were “mixed and matched” so that audiences could put together their own combination of Double Bill. The project was hailed as a revolution in opera going. As an artistic concept, the Eight Little Greats created some of the most exhilarating evenings that I can recall in well over three decades of attending Opera North performances. The complexities of a three-year planning cycle for this astonishing festival of short self-contained operas no doubt lie behind the reasons why the venture has sadly never been repeated. Christopher Alden‘s visceral production of De Falla’s disturbing two-act “mini” opera La vida breve was paired back in 2004 with either Puccini’s Il tabarro or Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf – all three of them unremittingly dark pieces. I remember Germaine Greer enthusing on BBC2’s Newsnight review at the time: “If you give a damn, then see La vida breve. It’s a staggering work and it is staggeringly presented and performed”.
Alden dispenses with the sunlit Andalucian setting of the original together with any hint of “Spanishness”, although De Falla’s sumptuous orchestral score, conducted with enthusiasm (if not always optimum balance between pit and stage) by Jac van Steen is drenched in local colour, as if to compensate. Alden places the action in a corrugated iron shed – a dress making sweatshop beneath the unforgiving glare of white neon strip lighting. The women operatives sit in closely packed rows slaving away on their sewing machines and supervised by brutish cocaine-sniffing men in brown work coats.
Alden’s claustrophobic setting was designed by the late Johan Engels and lit by Adam Silverman. The pair were responsible for the sets and lighting of every one of the Eight Little Greats. A cruel and uncompromising environment this certainly is, but one that reflects the obsessive suicidal anger which suffuses the tragic story. Salud, the young gypsy worker sung by Anne Sophie Duprels is hopelessly in love with the unfaithful Paco, sung by Jesús Álvarez. Paco plans to marry another woman, but not before he has had his wicked way with Salud in one of the most convincing and protracted (fully clothed) sex scenes that I have seen on any stage. Both give it their all but are unable to project the spectrum of interpretive vocal colour achieved by the heart rending gypsy-looking Mary Plazas and the burnished dark fluidity of the young Leonardo Capalbo in 2004. The two haunting standout performances this time around come from Daniel Norman whose plangent-toned abused Transvestite Worker intelligently combines dignity, camp humour and pathos.
The marvellous Elizabeth Sikora as the Grandmother of Salud whose fruitless efforts to pour oil on troubled waters break her own heart, and the audience’s as well. Quirijn de Lang‘s sinister crimplene-clad teddy boy Flamenco Singer in a finely poised slow-walking performance provides some welcome light relief. The responsive Opera North Chorus (as workers), sing with full throated power make a searing impact. Jac van Steen and the Orchestra of Opera North capture the urgency and drama of De Falla’s sumptuously spine tingling score. The evocative solo guitar is a particular delight and the well known Interlude and scintillating Dance in Act 2 almost emerge as show stealers in an opera that contains nearly as much orchestral music as vocal. Alden’s production with its ritualistic blood-soaked climax has lost none of its capacity to shock and disturb.
During the interval, the Leeds Grand Theatre audience seemed to be buzzing in anticipation of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, certain in the knowledge that we would eventually walk into the night with laughter in our hearts and an irresistible urge to loudly hum one of the world’s best loved arias.
Alden directs this new production and Silverman returns to light the show whilst Charles Edwards replaces the recently deceased Engels as Set Designer. Puccini’s realisation of an episode from Dante Aligieri’s Divine Comedy is of course a superbly crafted comedy in its own right. The orchestra is as much a character as are the vocal portrayals of an extended Italian family whose grasping members gather around the deathbed of the elderly Buoso Donati. They are there not to mourn but to squabble over the contents of his will, only to be hilariously outwitted by the endearing rogue Gianni Schicchi. Alden being Alden perhaps inevitably introduces a dark undertone but it’s an amusing touch in the form Buoso played by Tim Claydon who is the Movement Director for this production. The alive and kicking Buoso is smothered to death by an impatient relative but soon rises from his deathbed as an acrobatic Dante Aligieri whose spectral form watches over the entire proceedings. Edwards’ simple set in abstract white and grey patterns resembles a climbing wall adorned with frescos. A life-sized stuffed mule representing one of Buoso’s more bizarre bequests hangs upside down from the lighting bars. The motley relatives are first seen during the hectic orchestral Entracte lined up in front of the wall and balefully staring towards Buoso Donati’s fantastic canopied bed. The fast and furious fun soon erupts as everyone surrounds the bed; they rifle through drawers, hastily read and discard sheaths of papers in their frantic search for the will. It’s a brilliant ensemble opening, led by Elizabeth Sikora now glammed up in high heels, a two piece suit and big hair-do as the battleaxe cousin Zita.
Christopher Purves’ Gianni Schicchi is a rich vocal characterisation and wonderous comic creation. Impeccably dressed, to begin with, in a luxurious overcoat and heavily shaded like an Italian mobster; he calmly tears up Buoso Donati’s (genuine) will before donning a night shirt and climbing into bed to imitate the “dying” Buoso in the opera’s funniest scene. Lauretta, Schicchi’s chav-like daughter, is sung by Jennifer France who, left alone centre stage, delivers “O mio babbino caro” with a sweetness, sincerity and beguiling charm that made the eyes prick with tears – an oasis of serenity lasting just three minutes in Puccini’s feverishly busy score. Jesús Álvarez as Rinuccio, Lauretta’s nerdish lover, is much more vocally at ease than he was in La vide breve. Opera North Chorus members Ross McInroy and Jeremy Peaker create arresting cameos as the physician Maestro Spinelloccio and Ser Amantio di Nicolao, the lawyer who types Schicchi’s fraudulent instructions onto his laptop. And eleven year-old Rhys Gannon as Gherardino is permanently connected to a life support system, by which I mean his tablet and headset. These sharply observed contemporary touches bring the setting bang up to date and that is fine. After all, Puccini’s inventive music is timeless and Dante Aligieri’s glorious send-up of grasping skinflint relatives universal. Christopher Alden’s production looks like a winner and he is well served by a talented ensemble cast. Jac van Steen paces the score to perfection; the Orchestra of Opera North reveal the inner detail of Puccini’s consummately orchestrated and wonderfully gossipy music.
La vide breve and Gianni Schicchi continue in repertoire at Leeds Grand Theatre before touring to Newcastle, Salford and Nottingham. Don’t miss this enthralling and entertaining Double Bill.
4 stars – La vida breve / 5 stars – Gianni Schicchi
(Photos : Bill Cooper)