Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi; Il Tabarro, English Touring Opera in Cheltenham

Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi; Il Tabarro: English Touring Opera/Michael Rosewell (conductor), Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 7.4.2011.(RJ)

Il Tabarro

Michele                    Simon Thorpe
Giorgetta                 Julie Unwin
Luigi                         Charne Rochford
Talpa                        Arwell Huw Morgan
Tinca                        Andrew Glover
Frugola                    Clarissa Meek

Director                   James Conway

Gianni Schicchi

Gianni Schicchi     Richard Mosley-Evans
Lauretta                   Paula Sides
Zita                           Claressa Meek
Rinuccio                  Ashley Catling
Gherardo                Andrew Glover
Nella                        Jaqueline Varsey
Betto                        Aidan Smith
Simone                   Arwell Huw Morgan
Marco                      Nicholas Merryweather
La Ciesca               Lisa Anne Robinson
Doctor                     Maciek O’Shea
Lawyer/Buos         Stewart Haycock
Shoemaker           Philip Spendley
Dyer                        Henry Grant Kerswell

Director                   Liam Steel


Il Tabarro
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

If you are ever tempted to alter a dead person’s will in your favour, be warned: not only it is completely illegal to do so, (in medieval Florence you would have had a hand amputated, if found out), it could also lead to unintended consequences – as the Donati family in Puccini’s only comic opera discover to their cost. The Donati are a snooty lot, made to look all the more obnoxious in this production by weird make-up reminiscent of carnival masks and their odd-looking Edwardian fashions.  They feign profound grief on the death of Buoso Donati until they learn the terms of his will: that he has left his considerable fortune to a local monastery.

The only person in the family with any apparent redeeming features is the young Rinuccio who is in love with Gianni Schicchi’s daughter. The family, however, are against the match, regarding the Schicchis as beyond the pale since they are not of true Florentine stock. But Gianni possesses an attribute that the others lack – a sharp mind – and Rinuccio persuades the others to make use of his talents rather than wring their hands in despair. So the Donatis have a sudden change of heart: instead of running the detested Schicchi down they beseech him to help them. However he is definitely no soft touch.

Richard Mosley-Evans is quite splendid in the title role. Stocky, bald, with a cunning look he is the quintessential wheeler-dealer, who is obviously going to run rings round the foppish Donati tribe. Laura Sides as his daughter is a chip off the old block; she serenades him with O mio babbino caro but it is evident from her demeanour that she is not exactly expressing filial affection but merely attempting to wheedle a favour out of him. Schicchi agrees to write a new will, but the plot is almost thwarted by the bizarrely besuited doctor, played by Maciek O’Shea – not the kind you would want to entrust management of an NHS budget to. It takes quick thinking and ventriloquism by Schicchi to persuade the medic that old Buoso is still alive and in no need of his attention.

The plot goes through more twists and turns, but you’ll have got the flavour of the work.  Not only is it hilarious, but the whole production is great fun thanks to the slick ensemble work of the company who manage to make even mass hysteria look comic as they rummage around the bedroom looking for Buoso’s will. The singing is scintillating and the music captures the irony of the situation so succinctly that it is a matter of regret that Puccini didn’t write any other comedies.  Director Liam Steel throws everything into the production, even hell fire – a reminder that the Gianni Schicchi and Buoso Donata characters are lifted from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Canto XXX of Inferno, to be precise).

If Gianni Schicchi made me laugh, Il Tabarro left me profoundly depressed. Puccini has dealt with poverty elsewhere but, unlike the impoverished students of La Boheme who are young, high-spirited and have their lives before them, the characters in this one-acter lead wretched, monotonous lives and have absolutely nothing to look forward to. Michele, the bargee, and his wife Giorgetta are trapped in a loveless marriage after losing their child; the stevedores find solace from their drudgery in drink, apart from one who plans to escape to look for labouring work in Rouen – which doesn’t sound all that enticing. This is Luigi, with whom Giorgetta is having an illicit love affair.

The wily Gianni Schicchi (Richard Mosley-Evans)
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Neil Irish’s monochrome set is overwhelmingly drab and dispiriting, and the general appearance of the characters reflects the hopelessness of their lives. The one exception is Frugola, described as a ragpicker, who dreams of having a cottage in the country and dotes on her cat.  Clarissa Meek in this role brings a touch of humanity to the opera; she is clearly a generous sort but perhaps also slightly demented. Julie Unwin as the prematurely aged Giorgetta engages our sympathy with her stoicism and fine singing, but though she puts a brave face on matters and treats the stevedores to a glass of wine one quickly senses that tension is brewing on the barge.

Of the principal male characters, Michele is played by Simon Thorpe, looking uncannily like the late Oliver Reed, who is gruff, world-weary and past his prime though he insists, “My pipe may be out, but I’m still hot”. It is difficult to empathise with him until towards the end he bares his soul revealing how his hopes were shattered by the death of his daughter. Simon Thorpe’s powerful, anguished singing served to completely change our  preconceptions of him. Charne Rochford as his love rival Luigi has all the attributes that  would appeal to a woman like Giorgetta – youth, good looks and ambition – but it is obvious his relationship with is unlikely to extend beyond a one night stand.

Il Tabarro is, of course, a melodrama and melodramas end in death, but I shall not reveal whose. Indeed, I’m not sure that it matters. The great appeal of this opera is not so much the characters as the atmosphere of this dingy quayside on the River Seine with the river rippling past in the background. The music tells it all, such wonderful, evocative music   played so magnicently by the ETO’s small band of elite players inspired by Michael Rosewell’s precise and sympathetic direction. I urge everyone to see this production. You may not enjoy it, but it is impossible not to be genuinely moved  by it.

Both operas on this Puccini double-bill are sung in Italian with English surtitles and form part of the tour which ETO is making until the end of May 2011.  The tour also includes productions of La Clemenza di Tito (Mozart) – reviewed on this website – and The Fantastic Mr Fox (Tobias Picker). ETO will be performing in Sheffield, Snape, Norwich, Wolverhampton, Buxton, Truro, Poole, Durham, Perth and Belfast . Later in the year they will take their productions of Handel’s Flavio and Xerxes together with Purcell’s The Fairy Queen to London, Bath, Buxton, Cambridge, Lincoln, Harrogate, Snape and Exeter.

Roger Jones