Unusual Pairing of Dance and Rare Puccini Finds Success at The Lowry Box Office

11/03/2019

Stravinsky and Puccini: Dancers of Phoenix Dance Theatre, Soloists and Orchestra of Opera North / Gary Walker (conductor). The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 8.3.2019. (RJF)

Phoenix Dance Theatre – The Rite of Spring (c) Tristram Kenton

The Rite of Spring

Production:

Choreographer – Jeanguy Saintus
Costume designer – Yan Seabra
Lighting – Richard Moore

Dancers: Manon Arianow,  Natalie Alleston, Carmen Vazquez Marfil, Carlos J Martinez, Michael Marquez, Vanessa Vince-Pang, Prentice Whitlow & Aaron Chaplin

Gianni Schicchi

Production:

Director – Christopher Alden
Costume Designer – Doey Lüthi
Set Designer – Charles Edwards
Lighting – Adam Silverman

Cast included:

Dante/Buoso Donati – Tim Claydon
Gianni Schicchi – Richard Burkhard
Lauretta – Tereza Gevorgyan
Rinuccio – Diego Silva
Nella – Victoria Sharp
Zita – Rebecca de Pont Davies,
La Ciesca – Claire Pascoe
Marco – Peter Savidge
Betto di Signa – Dean Robinson
Simone – Stephen Richardson

As it evolved as an independent entity out of English National Opera, Opera North has never failed to interest a diverse audience, albeit sometimes at the cost of a firm and resolute opera following. Not unknown for lacking imagination in its struggle to establish itself as an independent entity its ventures into what many call musicals have sometimes divided supporters, but never ever bored them. This performance combined a programme of modern dance with a revival of a four-year-old production of Puccini’s, rarely performed one act comic Gianni Schicchi, in doing so it raised some eyebrows. I admit that, to my surprise, it appealed to a nearly full house at The Lowry, not always a common sight in my many years of seeing their work since their formation, whether at Leeds, The Lowry since 2004, and prior to that in Manchester.

The choice of music for the modern dance performance could have raised a few eyebrows. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring notoriously caused a riot at its premiere in Paris in 1913 with Puccini, attending the second performance and finding the music incomprehensible. Importantly those Paris performances were played with boosted concert orchestra numbers. Those at The Lowry performance, and in Leeds and elsewhere on tour have been of more modest numbers. In my sonically restricted seat – up against the left-hand wall of the stalls and well underneath the first-tier seating overhang – what was heard was hardly that of those first performances. Indeed – albeit I have only heard it live once before – at The Lowry it was distinctly muted and underpowered for the vibrancy required, or what is normal in the concert hall, and acknowledged as being a later version for smaller venues.

The work was performed in conjunction with the Phoenix Dance Theatre from Leeds. This deliberately multinational and ethnically diverse company brought imagination and elegance, if not always perfect coordination, to their performance. The eight dancers, sometimes reducing as costumes were changed, were expressive and balletic as well as athletic in their expressive performance. It was altogether different than classical ballet and not that far from more gymnastic forms I have seen. Importantly, an appreciative audience warmly received it.

Gianni Schicchi – Richard Burkhard (Gianni Schicchi) & Tim Claydon (Dante/Buoso Donati)
(c) Tristam Kenton

I cannot help wondering what Opera North had in their mind in coupling these two works. The only idea that I have come up with is that both composers made a definite decision to take a big step from their past work and go in a direction already deemed radical. The work of the Second Viennese School was very much on the horizon and in vogue. The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi were premiered a few years apart with Puccini calling his work openly a comedy to go alongside the drama of his other two near contemporary one act works: the dramatic Il tabarro and the harrowing story of Suor Angelica. The latter two works appeared in Opera North’s autumn 2016 season (review) whilst I missed out on the earlier Opera North staging of Gianni Schicchi in this production by Christopher Alden.

The story is of the relatives who think that a wealthy local man Buoso Donati, had, on his deathbed, disinherited them all in favour of a local monastery. Gianni Schicchi, another local man renowned for his intelligence and doubtful probity, is summoned to come up with ideas. He does so, involving his impersonation of the dead man as he dictates a new will before a notary in which he himself is the main beneficiary. The other relatives, all present can hardly denounce him! A subplot of a young couple wanting to marry provides the only opportunity for a formal aria, the renowned ‘O mio babbino caro’, the only part of the work generally well-known since the days of 78rpm records in its performance as ‘O my beloved father’. It is well sung here by short-skirted soprano Tereza Gevorgyan, in this modern dress production which makes much out of a tenuous connection with Dante’s Inferno. This involves Dante as the dead Buoso Donati, scampering about, climbing walls and the like, after being suffocated by the relatives and his substitution by Schicchi.

As Schicchi  himself, Richard Burkhard is excellent in his acting and in his vocal interpretation. Qualities also shared by Stephen Richardson and Peter Savidge among a cast of several Opera North regulars who, without exception, make significant contributions to the musical side of the production aided by Gary Walker’s conducting. For myself the updated costumes and the goings-on of the Dante character demean the work, sometimes reducing it to a farce! But that, I suppose, is the vogue of modern producers and their concepts!

Robert J Farr

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