United Kingdom Puccini, Il tabarro: Soloists, Chorus (chorus master: William Cole), Melos Sinfonia, Oliver Zeffman (conductor). LSO St Luke’s, London, 1.5.2016. (MB)Puccini, Il tabarro
Michele – Simon Thorpe
Giorgetta – Sarah-Jane Lewis
Luigi – Charne Rochford
La Frugola – Fiona Mackay
Tinca – Robin Jeffcoat
Talpa – Arshak Kuzikyan
Song-seller – Luis Gomes
Ella Marchment (director)
This was a May Day performance of Puccini’s opera to match what one might hear in the most exalted of houses, with all the advantages of observing the action at close hand. In this concert staging. there were no sets, but there was keen, telling direction (Ella Marchment). Imaginative use was made of the space too, the chorus and certain other solos being heard from above and around, reinforcing the sense of being trapped, fatally so, upon a river barge.
The Melos Sinfonia under Oliver Zeffman offered a duly hypnotic, post-Debussyan opening, the Seine immediately announced as a major, arguably the major, character. Zeffman’s care for orchestral balance was a richly rewarded as his dramatic pacing throughout. Try as I might – and of course, I was not really trying – I could not find anything to fault. Dramatic tension and the needs of the moment were as well balanced as the orchestral lines (both with each other and with the voices). Just when one began to think that Puccini might be veering a little too close to Debussy for comfort, orchestral swells proclaimed his identity all the louder. The twists and turns in the score, for instance when Luigi offers his men a drink, were navigated with a sharp ear for rhythm and colour – and splendidly executed by the orchestra. Rhythm, perhaps in this of all Puccini’s score, proved properly generative, progenitor of as well as aqueous participant in the drama.
There was no doubt, moreover, of the existential tragedy when Luigi took to the stage to respond to Tinca; one could have cut the atmosphere with a knife; Paris, another existence, certainly called to the lovers in their duet. A duly symphonic conception that yet did not forget this was an opera underlined, indeed in every sense underscored, the inexorable human tragedy. The icy chill of the strings’ knife-twisting thus took its place not as a mere ‘effect’ but as a necessary outcome of what had gone before. Stravinskian ostinato – surely at least as much to the point as the organ-grinder’s colourful reminiscence of Petrushka – looked forward to Œdipus Rex.
I had no more reservations concerning the singing than I did the rest of the performance. Simon Thorpe’s darkly tortured – and torturing – Michele was at least as powerful a portrayal of the role as I have heard. The same could be said of the rich-toned Giorgetta of Sarah-Jane Lewis, whose plight and character could not have done more to engage our sympathy. Charne Rochford’s powerful yet subtly attentive Italianate reading of Luigi’s part was to be heard at just as impressive a level. Fiona Mackay and Arshak Kuzikyan developed their characters, La Frugola and Tinca, with excellent eyes and ears for detail: there was nothing incidental about their roles. Nor was there in the case of Robin Jeffcoat’s lugubrious yet, in more than one sense, ‘realistic’ Tinca or the finely-observed Song-seller of Luis Gomes. The small chorus, well trained by William Cole, was on equally excellent form, whether corporately or in the case of other solos. At no point did it occur to me to miss this panoply of full staging.