High Standards in Opera North’s Puccini Double Bil

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Il tabarro and Suor Angelica: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Jac Van Steen (conductor), Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 30.11.2016. (SRT)

A scene from Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica by Opera North @ Grand Theatre, Leeds. (Opening 01-10-16) ©Tristram Kenton 09/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550  Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com
A scene from Opera North’s Suor Angelica © Tristram Kenton

Il tabarro

Giorgetta – Giselle Allen
La Frugola – Anne-Marie Owens
Luigi – David Butt Philip
Michele – Ivan Inverardi
Tinca – Stuart Laing
Songseller – Nicholas Watts
Talpa – Richard Mosley-Evans
Off-stage lovers – Marie Claire Breen & Alexander Banfield

Director – David Pountney
Revival Director – Michael Barker-Caven
Set Designer – Johan Engels
Costume Designer – Tom Pye
Lighting Designer – Mark Doubleday

Suor Angelica

Cast included:
Suor Angelica – Anne Sophie Duprels
La Zia Principessa – Patricia Bardon
Suor Genoveva – Soraya Mafi
Suor Osmina – Katie Bird
Suor Dolcina – Sarah Estill
La Badessa – Fiona Kimm
La Suora Zelatrice – Louise Collett
La Meastra della novizie – Claire Pascoe
La Suora Infermiera – Amy J Payne
1st Cercatrice – Gillene Butterfield
2nd Cercatrice – Anna Barry

Director – Michael Barker-Caven
Set and Costume Designer – Hannah Clark
Lighting Designer – Mark Doubleday

Opera North have brought their winter tour to Edinburgh, and they are most welcome guests.  For me, it’s like seeing an old friend again.  When I lived in the North East of England I never missed one of their shows in Newcastle, and while I’ve enjoyed Scottish Opera’s work since moving to Edinburgh, the quality offered by Opera North is consistently at a higher level.  They brought their Carousel last summer, but this week sees them offering more substantial operatic fare, and doing so on a very high level.

David Pountney’s Il tabarro first saw the light of day in the “Eight Little Greats” season in 2004, still much talked about in the North East.  His bare box set heightens the claustrophobia of the story, and all the extraneous action stays off stage, heard but not seen.  It helps heighten a marvellously tight drama, as the dark atmosphere slowly closes in on Michele and Giorgetta’s marriage, the colourless set mirroring their now extinct love.  Ivan Inverardi plays Michele as all too human, not a monster, driven to extremes of action by forces he barely understands.  His baritone is powerful but lyrical, and his duet with Giorgetta is unbearably touching before he breaks into a powerful monologue of pain.  Giselle Allen’s blowsy Giorgetta is a woman at the end of her tether, flowering into life as she sings of Paris, and ultimately the story’s most tragic victim.  Tenor David Butt Philip is a revelation as Luigi.  A beefy presence on stage, his voice is stirring dramatic while remaining lyrically rich.  He delivers a powerful monologue about the oppression of the working class before catching flight in the duet about Belleville.  The lovers’ illicit duet is electric, full of snatched moments of passion and longed-for desperation, and conductor Jac Van Steen controls the whole arch like a master, making sure the screw is at its tightest at just that moment, with the passion of the final scene so engrossing that you can forgive the slightly daft silhouette of the final tableau.

Michael Barker-Caven’s Suor Angelica is new for this coupling, but it’s beautifully observed and cleanly staged.  The nuns are plainly dressed but each individually characterised, and the spare set emphasises the monumentality of the story’s religious element.  Anne Sophie Duprels gives a tour-de-force performance as Angelica, delicately vulnerable yet ultimately full of strength, and she sustains a marvellous pianissimo at the end of ‘Senza mamma’.  Patricia Bardon is at her most steely as the princess, but the depth of her mezzo adds sensational colour to the texture, even if she can’t get away from the character as a pantomime villain.  There are lots of beautiful touches to the acting throughout the piece.  It’s impossible to stage Puccini’s ending without it becoming either twee, daft or comical, and the Kubrick-light visuals don’t manage to escape the trap; but it’s nevertheless moving and it’s a tribute to the staging that it had me sympathising with the sentimentality rather than condescending to it.

It’s a shame to have Trittico without Gianni Schicchi, but the two most contrasting operas of the set make for a surprisingly satisfying diptych on their own.  Add in the orchestral playing and (occasional) chorus singing of the highest order, and you have a great night at the opera.  It was warmly received, too.  I do so hope that they’ll be back.

Simon Thompson

Opera North’s Edinburgh season continues until Saturday 3rd December.  For full details see here.

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