United Kingdom Puccini: Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia and Opera Holland Park Chorus, Stuart Stratford (conductor), Holland Park, London, 2.6.2015 (CS)
Giacomo Puccini: Il trittico
Michele – Stephen Gadd
Giorgetta – Anne Sophie Duprels
Luigi – Jeff Gwaltney
Frugola – Sarah Pring
Tinca – Aled Hall
Talpa – Simon Wilding
Soprano Amante – Johane Ansell
Tenor Amante – James Edwards
Song Vendor – Peter Davoren
Suor Angelica – Anne Sophie Duprels
La Zia Principessa – Rosalind Plowright
La Badessa – Fiona Mackay
La Suora Zelatrice – Laura Woods
La Maestra delle Novizie – Kathryn Walker
Suor Genovieffa – Johane Ansell
Suor Osmina – Kathryn Hannah
Suor Dolcina – Rosanne Havel
La Suora Infermiera – Chloe Treharne
Una Cercatrice – Anna Patalong
Una Cercatrice – Sarah Minns
Una Novizia – Naomi Kilby
Una Novizia – Ellie Edmonds
Una Conversa – Rebecca Hardwick
Una Conversa – Chloe Hinton
Child – Matteo Elezi
Gianni Schicchi – Richard Burkhard
Zita – Sarah Pring
Lauretta – Anna Patalong
Rinuccio – James Edwards
Gherardo – Aled Hall
Nella – Elin Pritchard
Betto – Simon Wilding
Simone – William Robert Allenby
Marco – Ian Beadle
La Ciesca – Chloe Hinton
Spinelloccio – Henry Grant Kerswell
Gheradino – Barnaby Stewart
Buoso – Peter Benton
Direction: Martin Lloyd-Evans (Il tabarro and original director of Gianni Schicchi)
Oliver Platt (Suor Angelica and revival director of Gianni Schicchi)
Designs: Neil Irish
Lighting designs: Richard Howell
Murderous jealousy, spiritual suffering, vulgar comic japery: how does a director make the thirds that form Puccini’s ‘slice-of-all-lives’ opera, Il trittico, into a perfectly balanced equilateral triangle rather than a higgledy slab of tri-colour Neapolitan ice-cream?
On the first night of Opera Holland Park’s 2015 season, the answer seemed to be: bring in a designer who can make much of not much and a conductor with an ear for musical nuance and an eye for directorial detail; add a superb and versatile cast of singers and let the music tell the story. The result was a resounding success.
Designer Neil Irish sets all three operas in the 1940s, immediately establishing visual and contextual connections. The long stage at OHP, with the ruins of Holland House forming a natural backdrop, is a tricky one to negotiate. For Il Tabarro, Irish fills its length with a narrow barge – its deck topped with a make-shift canopy and motley washing-lines, and plants potted in assorted buckets and tubs – backed by a façade of tall, round-topped arches, through which we glimpse dock workers and passers-by as well as lovers making rendezvous as they stroll along the banks of the Seine. The suffocating confines of Giorgetta’s life – squeezed between the bed and the stove, as she laments – are thus immediately apparent, as are her efforts to bring some light and comfort into the domestic dreariness. Working life is a ‘naturally’ presented as the familial, with stevedores emerging from the depths of Michele’s barge, laden with sacks and wares.
The arches slide back and angle in Suor Angelica, as Irish transforms the barge into two slanting white-draped ‘altars’. The long-johns and underclothing which flapped in the breeze atop the narrow-boat are now the vestments of a convent in which the sisters are overseen by a fierce Abbess as they go about their chores – like subdued inmates in a Magdalene Laundry. We travel from the priory to the palazzo for Gianni Schicchi: the arches are filled, on the left, with steeply raking shelves bearing the messy burden of the recently deceased Buoso di Donati’s books and papers, and on the right with shabby shutters which lead to a balcony beyond, overlooking the Arno. The central arch is now bedecked with a plush red velvet drape which remains drawn until the concluding bars, when it is in a splendid coup de theatre.
Complementing the tight, neat design, Stuart Stratford’s unfussy, precise, alert conducting is one of the highlights of the evening. With only a fairly small body of strings Stratford cannot summon the sweeping expanse, shimmering tremolos and extreme dynamic changes of the richest Puccinian idioms, but he recognises the way, in Il tabarro, the dark lower strings provided a coloristic backdrop to the voices which carry the vocal lines, and the ominously insistent bass motif astutely foregrounded, the relentless cadence figure foretelling the inescapable doom. Against the shadowy strings, horns and brass were pungent and penetrating, sending a chill down the spine, while the timpani’s tolls – now thunderous and disturbing, then tapping creepily – were woven into the dramatic fabric. The blackness was alleviated by the rippling harp and pure upper woodwind melodies which brought light and rapture to Suor Angelica. Stratford paced things perfectly, closing with a sustained chord which faded interminably into a troubled stillness – in Oliver Platt’s production there is no miracle or transfiguration. There was little that was ‘still’ about Gianni Schicchi – even the dead Buoso was whisked about his chamber by his grasping heirs – and Stratford had the measure of the ever-shifting musical idioms and styles.
It’s difficult to open the show at OHP, before the intrusive sounds of evening life in the park have been quelled by the setting sun, and on this occasion the cast of Il tabarro also had to compete against the squally wind flapping the sides of the marquee. They were helped by the foreshortening of the stage which the façade effected but, even so, soprano Anne Sophie Duprels (Giorgetta) and baritone Stephen Gadd (Michele) were impressive as they immediately created a convincing milieu, using their voices with suppleness and phrasing thoughtfully to establish their characters and relationship.
Duprels was a sympathetic Giorgetta, physically fatigued by domestic hardship, emotionally worn down by the death of her child. Despite her attraction to Jeff Gwaltney’s Luigi, she seemed reluctant to give in to her desires, which made her duet with Gwaltney all the more glorious, as they rapturously rejoiced in the imagined splendours of Paris. Gruff and irritable at the start, Gadd dropped his cold, authoritarian mask in a superb central duet with Duprels: as he implored her to explain why she no longer returned his passion, his Italianate style and warm tone won our compassion.
Gwaltney had the heft both to hoist a sack aloft as if it were filled with feathers and to project with ease to the corners of the pavilion. But he certainly wasn’t all weighty swagger and sang with sensitivity, though I felt the role was a little under-directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans. The latter similarly made little of the candle which is the signal for Luigi’s midnight engagement with Giorgetta, and thus in the climactic scene he seemed to have wandered down to the Seine almost by accident, to find the jealous Michele lying in wait.
Sarah Pring demonstrated an attractive mezzo-soprano as Frugola – as well as a terrific cackle! – and made her presence felt in the small role. Aled Hall and Simon Wilding were accomplished as Tinca and Talpa respectively; Hall, in particular, used his characterful tenor to bring a much needed touch of lightness. Johane Ansell and James Edwards sang beautifully of their romantic bliss, entirely indifferent to the violent passions brewing beside the Seine, and Peter Davoren was colourful of voice and attire as the song vendor.
There was a similarly strong sense of ensemble in Suor Angelica, with Duprels once again taking the leading role, as the eponymous sister incarcerated by her family to atone for her sins. At first Duprels is indistinguishable among the down-trodden community of penitent sinners (director Oliver Platt suggests that they are all guilty of some great misdemeanour and that their prayers are motivated less by spiritual devotion than by a need for attrition); but she emerges as feistily independent and dangerously resentful. This was utterly committed singing.
Rosalind Plowright, singing with a wonderfully controlled legato, revealed La Zia Principessa’s more forgiving side, though it was heavily concealed below a tyrannical insistence on discipline and submission. Fiona Mackay (La Badessa) Laura Woods (La Suora Zelatrice) and Kathryn Walker (La Maestra delle Novizie) made notable contributions to a strong ensemble performance.
The conclusion is bleak and without consolation: we are left with the image of an inert Angelica whom the other sisters desperately try to revive. Taken on its own terms, it is undoubtedly a painfully moving ending; but the earnest religiosity of this opera can be difficult for contemporary audiences to swallow, and perhaps the libretto’s suggestion of redemption would be a more dramatically and emotionally satisfying conclusion to the whole.
Gianni Schicchi is also very much a ‘team piece’, and here under Platt’s direction – revising Lloyd-Evans’ 2012 production – the cast moved with the choreographic precision of a Carry On team, climbing ladders and clock-cases, frenetically searching for the patriarch’s last will and testament (which the evening’s blustery wind helpfully made an even more challenging endeavour as it strew the papers across the stage), and dealing with the dead body – at one point Buoso’s (Peter Benton) rigor mortis came in useful, as he was propped upright to fool the visiting doctor. I found the interpolated mimed ‘prelude’ somewhat wearying, as Buoso’s relatives gathered like vultures around his bed eagerly anticipating his demise, but once Stratford had kicked off the musical high jinks, with energy and terrific attention to detail, the performance was a delight.
The avaricious clan comprised a bizarre collection of commedia-derived caricatures. Sarah Pring again showed good comic instincts as Zita, hurling insults at Schicchi with a shrewish agitation, and she was well-partnered by William Robert Allenby as the crusty old Simone. In a dulcet trio which contrasted with the prevailing mood of rage and hysteria, Pring was joined by Elin Pritchard (Nella) and Chloe Hinton (La Ciesca), extolling Schicci’s merits as ‘our saviour’ – a delicious anticipation of the schadenfreude to come. Aled Hall (Gherardo) and Simon Wilding (Marco) completed the disreputable parade of heartless hangers-on.
As Rinuccio, James Edwards donned his Il tabarro soldier’s uniform once more; his fervent paean to the wonders of ancient Florence was beautifully rich and velvety of tone and his lovely duet with Lauretta at the close was classic Puccini – a moment of sentimentality to soften the farce. Anna Patalong was strong as Schicchi’s Lauretta, fittingly gushing without overdoing the mawkishness. ‘O mio babbino caro’ brought the mad-cap mayhem to a standstill in a way which was both surreal and totally entrancing. Patalong’s bright, pure lyric soprano interjected a moment of pure romantic rapture; it seemed to belong to another world, yet served as a wry reflection on the disreputable emotional blankness of the money-grabbers – before Lauretta’s vow to throw herself from the Ponte Vecchio if she could not marry Rinuccio brought things back down to histrionics.
Which brings us to the eponymous lawyer himself whom Richard Burkhard, in a masterly comic display, made a loveable rogue, sprightly and spruce in red waistcoat and bowler hat. Schicchi’s guile was simultaneously endearing and provocative; his inventive craftiness raised a smile, yet Burkhard did not neglect to show the ruthless schemer’s steely self-interest – the fact that the baritone’s voice is full and sweet-toned only sharpened the paradox.
This triptych is a terrific start to OHP’s season. It’s a long evening at nearly four hours but standards are high and the entertainment is varied and captivating.