Monday, 10 December 2018

REVIEW: Opera Double Bill: Suor Angelica / Gianni Schicchi - The RNCM, Manchester.

“Suor Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi” are two one-act operas that were performed this evening at the Royal Northern College of Music, with professional singers in the title roles, supporting characters and chorus performed by the opera students, and the entire performance dynamically conducted by Martin Andre. The first opera is a tragedy, the second is a comedy, and RNCM’s production made an immensely satisfying whole: “It’s better than my recording from the Met!” a patron commented to her friend in the ladies’ toilets during interval.

Both were written by Giacomo Puccini, and debuted in 1918. Still sung in Italian, the RNCM production moved the setting to a more modern Italy of around 1960. This meant the old-fashioned values of the societies depicted could be retained, while still allowing the young singers to bring freshness to the pieces.

“Suor Angelica” was set in a convent. Director Robert Chevara did bring some light touches to his community of young nuns, with little flashes of humour and girlish foibles, but on the whole, I found the female chorus to be rather underused in the staging, with it not really being imagined what a group of young women do when left alone together with no male character present.

The production moved onto safer ground with the introduction of the lead character Sister Angelica. Professional singer Linda Richardson’s performance was a deeply moving one, sung with richness and sincerity. Piece by piece, we discovered her back story. As she distanced herself from the other nuns and was sent to receive a visitor, we were taken from a sunny convent garden full of healing plants and flowers to an austere reception room beneath an enormous stained glass window. Student singer Molly Barker was the visiting Princess at this performance – the programme indicates that two student casts performed at different shows – and her cold authority, coupled with her deep and perfectly controlled voice, had her banished niece Sister Angelica trembling in the corner. Having announced that Sister Angelica’s little illegitimate son, who his mother had not seen since he was born, had died two years ago, she swept out. Richardson was left to sing an aria of anguished maternal love, leading to an extended suicide attempt and then the realisation that suicides cannot join innocent children in heaven, that had me crying in the theatre – and that doesn’t happen to this hard-bitten reviewer all that often.

I very much needed a comedy after that, and with “Gianni Schicchi” RNCM riotously delivered. The student singers thoroughly enjoyed themselves as a gang of hideous grieving relatives in loud and garish costumes (think how Mafia wives dress……), and director Robert Chevara brought out every moment of rageful, conniving and desperate behaviour possible, with lots of group-posturing and stuffing dead bodies clumsily into wardrobes. Sideways. Having discovered that their freshly dead relative is leaving his entire fortune to some very dubious-sounding alcoholic monks, they decide to bring in their lower-class neighbour Gianni Schicchi to solve the problem. Professional singer Quentin Hayes was magnificent as this very Italian scoundrel, singing alternately in both his own voice and the dead man’s, as he impersonated the corpse to the notary, pretending he was still alive and rewriting the will initially in the favour of the relatives – but ultimately putting the juiciest part of the estate into his own name. His casual “I was sent to Hell for that trick” at the end of the opera was a classic moment.

I’m not sure which singers were doing the thwarted young lovers Lauretta and Rinuccio at this performance, but both brought a fresh silvery innocence to their singing that was very appealing, and Lauretta had the audience in the palm of her hand during her famous “O Mio Babbino Caro” aria.

Reviewer - Thalia Terpischore
on - 9/12/18

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