Saturday, 16 April 2011

English Touring Opera - a double bill of Puccini at Exeter Northcott Theatre Thur/Fri 24/25 March

On Thursday and Friday evening at the Exeter Northcott Theatre, Mozart's 'La Clemenza di Tito' gave way to a double bill of contrasting one act operas by Giacomo Puccini.  One was intensely tragic but the other, by way of relief was a hilarious farce.

A sombre set for a tragic story, 'Il Tabarro'
bottom 3,4 & 5 from left: Charne Rochford is Luigi,
Julie Unwin, Giorgetta and Simon Thorpe, Michele.
(Greg Tassell appears yet again - 'song seller', top left)

'Il Tabarro' ('The Cloak') was very depressing - and moving.  Simon Thorpe played the part of a barge owner, Michele, on the Seine in Paris in 1910.  He employs a gang of stevedores including Luigi (played by Charne Rochford) who falls in love with Michele's wife Giorgetta (Julie Unwin).  Life on the barge is tough but bearable - except for the tragic loss of Michele and Giorgetta's only child (who Michele used to shelter under his cloak - 'il tabarro' in Italian).  Giorgetta's desire for a younger man and Michele's increasing bitterness and jealousy are played out beautifully - if distressingly.  The woes of the other gang members are also brought in to add to the pathos.  A strange comic interlude where Greg Tassell, as a 'song seller', ends up dropping all his song sheets, dates the piece and adds a little idea of local life.  However, the whole story is very insular - confined to the deck of the barge.  The final, inevitable, murder is convincing - and horrifying.  As Michele finally bellows his admission of what he has done, he throws open the cloak, which had previously protected his wife and child - to reveal the shocking corpse of Luigi.  This opera was definitely not for the faint hearted!

'Gianni Schicchi' (pronounced 'Skee-kee') was a very different story.  The story is set at the end of the thirteenth century in Florence but the set was of roughly the same period as 'Il Tabarro', but decidedly more opulent.  The action opens with 'the ensemble' around their uncle's deathbed in a rather dishevelled but still grand room hung with scarlet satin.  Each of the relatives is inexplicably dressed and made up as a strange clown or Victorian 'grotesque'.  They argue about the inheritance before starting a frantic search for Uncle Buoso's will.  Everything is torn open and thrown aside leaving a pile of papers on the floor which oddly mirrors the 'song seller' and his music in the previous play.  The will, which they finally manage to locate, leaves everything to the Monastery, which does not please the relatives.  Paula Sides and Ashley Catling play an engaged couple, Rinuccio and Lauretta.  Rinuccio hoped to get married on his inheritance despite the family's dislike of Lauretta's father - the eponymous Gianni Schicchi.  Eventually the family agree that Schicchi, although unpopular, is the only one clever enough to recover their inheritance.  Richard Mosley-Evans' entrance as their unlikely saviour is comic in the extreme.  Richard, a former steel-worker from South Wales, is broad and stocky and has a huge bald pate.  He struts about full of his own importance and enjoying the predicament of the family - even the lament of his daughter and prospective son-in-law who despair of ever getting married.  His plan, when he arrives at it, is not terribly clever, however.  He will pretend to be Buoso, still alive, and dictate a new will - a crime which would see them all punished by the loss of a hand and banishment from Florence.  Although the set is windowless, the beloved Florence, from which they would be banished, is represented by a painting, over which they weep.  Richard, as Schicchi, dressed in Buoso's nightshirt, and singing in a strangled falsetto voice (which presumably sounds like Buoso), dictates a new will to the Lawyer (Stuart Haycock) from behind the bed-curtains.  Surprisingly, he deceives the lawyer successfully, but also adds several bequests to himself, while waving the empty sleeve of the nightshirt to remind the family what will happen if they make a fuss and get found out.  Although ridiculous, the story is absolutely captivating,and the bizarre characters responses endlessly amusing.  Paula Sides (see below) as Lauretta is sent out to avoid implicating her in the crime.  She spends most of her time on the 'roof' silently acting out her part in parallel with the action below, and often forgotten by the audience.  One final twist, which was not immediately apparent, was that Stuart Haycock, who played the Lawyer, was also the body of Buoso.  Once bundled into a cupboard, he quickly changed costume and came in from the other side of the set.  After writing the will and leaving, he changed back and got back into the cupboard - to tumble out as the final punchline in an irreverent parody of the tragic end of 'Il Tabarro'

Watching two such different operas in quick succession is quite a strange experience, but a very interesting one.  The singers worked perfectly to take us into very different worlds.  An amazing achievement which they  repeat every week all over the country - the run continues until the end of May, when they will be at the Grand Opera House, Belfast.

The next English Touring Opera Season starts at the Royal College of Music in October and finishes at the Exeter Northcott Theatre in November:

English Touring Opera
Exeter Northcott Theatre
Wed 16 November 7.30pm
George Frederic Handel: 'Flavio'
Thur 17 November 7.30pm
Henry Purcell: 'The Fairy Queen'
Fri/Sat 18/19 November 7.30pm
George Frederic Handel: 'Xerxes'
Tickets: £17-30 (concessions 1/2)
(pre-show talks - info to follow)
Box: 01392 493493
Information: 0207 833 2555

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