Saturday, 22 November 2014

Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, Royal Academy Opera, 20 November 2014

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Suor Angelica – Emily Garland
Suor Dolcina - Nika Goric
Monitress – Laura Zigmantaite
Suor Genovieffa – Eve Daniell
Suor Osmina – Kirsty Michele Anderson
Mistress of the Novices – Helen Brackenbury
Abbess – Katie Stevenson
Zia Principessa - Anna Harvey

Lauretta – Charlotte Schoeters
Nella – Eve Daniell
La Ciesca – Katherine Aitken
Zita – Laura Zigmantaite
Gherardo – Richard Dowling
Rinuccio – John Porter
Amantio di Nicolao – Dominic Bowe
Gianni Schicchi – Ed Ballard
Marco – Henry Neill
Betto – Alistair Ollerenshaw
Guccio – Jamie Wright
Maestro Spinelloccio – Timothy Murphy
Pinellino – Michael Mofidian
Simone – Lancelot Nomura
Gherardino – Harriet Eyley

Will Kerley (director)
Jason Southgate (designs)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Peter Robinson (conductor)

Two-thirds of Puccini’s triptych made for yet another excellent evening at the Royal Academy of Music. It may sound exaggerated to say that London’s conservatoire opera performances more often than not put its main houses to shame, but that does genuinely seem to be the case. Productions may be a more fraught issue, but when the vocal performances are superior, that says a great deal concerning both the quality of musicianship on offer at the Royal Academy and elsewhere, and also questionable casting decisions from the Royal Opera (Idomeneo fresh in the memory) and ENO.

Comparisons – from which she would have nothing whatsoever to fear – aside, Emily Garland’s Suor Angelica quite floored me: a startling mature performance. This is not the sort of repertoire one really expects to hear from singers so young; indeed, this was the first conservatoire performance I have attended of Puccini. But Garland’s voice was the real thing, her tragic plight involving one as only a fine vocal performance could. Puccini’s mix, especially here, of sadism and sentimentality can be hard to take, but we found ourselves here in expert hands. The supporting cast had not a weak link, and Anna Harvey’s elegantly-sung Zia Principessa made for a cruel foil indeed. My other doubt, a priori, would have concerned a small-ish orchestra, and there were occasions when, even in a small theatre, a few more strings would have helped. However, they were few and far between, and, if I have heard more symphonic Puccini, especially earlier on, than Peter Robinson’s, he was always attentive to the action. Moreover, the final scene’s emotional impact flowed as much from the tauntingly gorgeous orchestral sound as from Garland’s inspired performance. Will Kerley’s keenly-observed production makes excellent use of Jason Southgate’s resourceful set and of course an eager company of nuns; the musical drama, quite rightly, remains our focus, with little to distract us from its unfolding.

Gianni Schicchi emerged after the interval in gloriously garish colours – at least so far as the staging was concerned. I sensed a kinship, perhaps coincidental, with Richard Jones’s Covent Garden production, though the updating comes closer to our time, with Rinuccio cheekily capturing moments à la mode on his telephone camera. The liveliness of the direction, every character’s movements and reactions carefully attended to and utterly convincing, even in loving caricature, was matched by a string of fine vocal performances. Again, the cliché of not a weak link in the cast held triumphantly; moreover, there was a real sense, quite an achievement this, of a true ‘company performance’. Ed Ballard’s assumption of the title role was a joy, as alert to words as to music as to stage action: another singer here from whom we shall surely hear more. I doubt that anything will convince me that ‘O mio babbino caro’ is not an unfortunate mistake, a fly in the ointment, though doubtless a case can be made for a moment when the brilliance of Puccini’s scherzo stops. That said, Charlotte Schoeters sang it and the rest of her role beautifully, making a winning pair with John Porter’s ardent Rinuccio. When I say that it is difficult to disentangle the other performances, I mean nothing but praise by that; to attempt to do so would degenerate into a mere repetition of the cast list, and the whole was far more than the sum of the parts. Robinson and the orchestra were perhaps on finer form still, that glistening orchestral brilliance to which I alluded married to an unerring sense of dramatic direction. Congratulations to all concerned!


Lisa Hirsch said...

Really curious about your take on "O mio babino caro," which is hilarious if done correctly - it gets milked for soppiness by an awful lot of sopranos, but, really, it is a comic aria.

Mark Berry said...

Lisa, that’s a very good point, although I don’t think it is how the aria is generally experienced. It was not milked here, certainly, which is a good thing, but I still think it has a tendency to stand out, as if it were to be taken entirely seriously. Audience responses do not help, I think. One senses and indeed sees people, doubless missing the point, sitting back to ‘enjoy’. I still think the work would be better off without it, just as, say, 'Tosca' would be without ‘Vissi d'arte’. As I learned on Twitter yesterday, Callas said it would be better cut; I find it difficult to disagree.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The contrast between the beautiful Puccinian melody and the silly teenage whining ("I will throw myself in the Arno, Daddy, if you don't give in!") is why it is funny. People don't get it because they don't get a LOT of humor that is built into music; also, they've heard this aria out of context, over and over and over.

I'm trying to remember which Beethoven symphony I saw a few years back where I almost fell out of my chair when it got to the funny part, and all around me were stony faces. I've never heard Mozart's Musical Joke live and wonder what audiences make of it.

"Vissi d'arte" is complicated. If the second act of Tosca is well-paced by the conductor, there isn't as much sense of interruption of the action as when it's badly paced. I have seen both. I remember reading long ago that Hariclea Darclee, the soprano in the world premiere, was upset that she didn't have a big aria, and so it was inserted during rehearsals.

If that is correct, you can hardly blame her for wanting an aria, when the tenor has two. And it gives you, in an explicit way, important information about Tosca and her character, as well: that she really does live only for art and love and those impulses are what drive her actions during the opera. There's a lot about her background and character in the play, but the opera is exceptionally compact and most of that was omitted.

"O mio babbino caro" serves a similar purpose. We find out how much Gianni - who is a smart and crafty con man - is susceptible to manipulation by his young daughter. Again, it says something about his character and fleshes him out.