Fascinating De Falla/Puccini Double Bill from Opera North

United KingdomUnited Kingdom De Falla, La vida breve & Puccini, Gianni Schicchi: Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North/Jac van Steen (conductor), Lyric Theatre, Lowry, Salford, U.K. 12.3.2015 (MC)

Falla La Vida Breve Opera North Photo Bill Cooper
Opera North – Falla La vida breve © Bill Cooper

La vida breve
Worker – Daniel Norman
Grandmother – Elisabeth
Salud – Anne Sophie Duprels
Paco – Jesús Álvarez
Uncle Sarvaor – Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Carmela – Beth Mackay
Singer (flamenco) – Quirijn de Lang
Manuel – Gavin Ring
Workers – Sarah Estill, Rachel J. Mosley,
Cordelia Fish, Paul Rendall

Director – Christopher Alden
Set Designer – Johan Engels
Costume Designer – Sue Willmington
Lighting Designer – Adam Silverman
Movement Director – Tim Claydon


This production of De Falla’s ‘La vida breve’ was first staged by Opera North in 2004 originally part of its series ‘Eight Little Greats’ with this revival directed by Christopher Alden part of a fascinating double bill with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.  A friend who attended the 2005 staging of La vida  breve at the Salford Lowry described the contemporary production as “a travesty” which made me even more interested to discover what all the fuss was about. Rather than a traditional setting in early 1900’s Granada with sweltering Spanish weather the curtain opened to reveal what could have been a dismal looking Salford back-street factory from the 1950s or 60s. A line of sewing machines and trestle cutting tables were making wedding dresses with the women wearing Hilda Ogden-like floral aprons and head scarves over curlers, and men in khaki warehouse coats. Did I think it was a travesty? – No, I didn’t. I suppose it is mainly down to expectations and whether or not one has seen a traditional staging and enjoyed it. Seeing this for the first time I was struck by the dark smouldering tension in the grimy and unfriendly machine shop, in an atmosphere heavy with jealousy and disgrace.

Stealing the show was soprano Anne Sophie Duprels acting superbly as the badly used and abused sewing machinist Salud dreadfully humiliated in front of her workmates by Paco, the deceitful, leather jacketed Lothario, who attempted to rape her. Unsuccessful in his efforts at intercourse Paco then proceeded to masturbate. In excellent voice, smooth, securely in-tune and unerringly expressive Duprels generated convincing emotion singing that death is better than suffering the pain of heartbreak. Shocking was the manner in which the hysterical Salud wearing Carmela’s wedding dress cranked up the tension by deliberately cutting herself on her arms, chest and neck which seemed to take forever before plunging the knife in her heart to the clapping and singing of the sour faced workers. Smoulderingly handsome Jesús Álvarez persuasively portrayed the love-rat  Paco and displayed a fluently bright and attractive tenor. Wearing a light-blue teddy-boy suit and frilly pink dress shirt, looking somewhat like an Elvis impersonator, baritone Quirijn de Lang was impressive in his role as the flamenco wedding singer. Rather shocking too was the treatment meted out to the ‘Worker’ played by Daniel Norman, a man dressed as a woman sewing machinist, who is ridiculed and spat at, and after comforting Salud is kicked unmercifully by Paco’s thuggish friend and left for dead.

Eleven years on and Christopher Alden’s production still has the ability to disturb with an aftershock that resonates long after its conclusion.

GIANNI SCHICCHI _OPERA NORTH, Gianni Schicchi; Christopher Purves, Lauretta; Jennifer France, Rinuccio; Jesús Álvarez, Nella; Victoria Sharp, La Ciesca; Claire Pascoe, Zita; Elizabeth Sikora, Gherardo; Daniel Norman, Marco; Peter Savidge, Ser Amantio d
Puccini Gianni Schicchi © Bill Cooper


Gianni Schicchi

Dante/Buoso Donati – Tim Claydon
Rinuccio – Jesús Álvarez
Nella – Victoria Sharp
La Ciesca – Claire Pascoe
Zita – Elizabeth Sikora
Gherardino – Rhys Gannon
Gerardo – Daniel Norman
Marco – Pter Savidge
Betto di Signa – Dean Robinson
Simone – Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Lauretta – Jennifer France
Gianni Schicchi – Christopher Purvis
Maestro Spinelloccio – Ross McInroy
Ser Amantio di Nicolao – Jeremy Peaker
Pinellino – Gordon D. Shaw
Gucci – Garrick Forbes
Director – Christopher Alden
Set Designer – Charles Edwards
Costume Designer – Doey Lüthi
Lighting Designer – Adam Silverman
Movement Director – Tim Claydon

Christopher Alden’s new production of Puccini’s comic opera ‘Gianni Schicchi’ proved a tougher proposition for Opera North. The plot taken from a fragment of Dante’s epic poem Divine Comedy is really what I’ve heard described as a “grotesque comedy” rather than the slapstick, often puzzling, farce that Alden has created. It was an agreeable staging if stymied by a rather characterless performance from all but Tim Claydon as Dante/Buoso Donati who acted memorably throughout, displaying real agility in his gymnastics and Christopher Purvis in the title role. Originally set in 14th century Florence, Alden had all the characters bar Donati wearing contemporary dress. The action mainly revolved around the large grey coloured bed with a massive headboard and a high wall that ran the full length of the stage and both were the focus for much climbing, hanging and balancing.

Fearful that the ailing Buoso Donati will leave his fortune to the monastery his relatives try to get the old man to leave them the money. When Donati dies he is impersonated by Gianni Schicchi who rewrites the will and actually leaves the best part of the estate to himself, for the benefit of the lovers Rinuccio and Lauretta. All the time Donati was dead Claydon as Dante wearing an orange all-in-one was watching the murky developments. The tormented Lauretta played by Jennifer France begged Gianni Schicchi to help them all to inherit the fortune in her renowned arietta ‘Oh! mio babbino caro’ which the soprano sang reasonably well, rather lacking in inspiration. Christopher Purvis as Gianni Schicchi had a fine stage presence. Decked out like a spiv Purvis with his blue/grey double breasted suit, pink shirt and dark sunglasses sang with a lovely baritone, excellently projected and so unerringly expressive. Although a mule (presumably a live one) was part of the inheritance no one I spoke to could agree on the reason for the stuffed mule to be hanging from a rope by its legs from the ceiling. The Orchestra of Opera North played splendidly assisted by the steadfast conducting throughout both operas from Jac van Steen who simply got on with the job maintaining control and excellent pacing. In truth Van Steen seemed especially suited to Falla’s Spanish rhythms.

Opera North can feel suitably proud of this engaging, immensely entertaining and sometimes disconcerting Christopher Alden double bill at the excellent Lyric Theatre, at Lowry, Salford.

Michael Cookson

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