As part of its 40th Anniversary celebrations, Opera North present an unusual double-bill of contrasting pieces with The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi. Judging by this sold out performance at Nottingham Theatre Royal, their loyal followers clearly trust them to provide a stimulating and diverse programme. Others, attending for the first time, reap the benefit of a taster of two different performance styles. Both are superb, in very distinctive ways.
The Rite of Spring is presented in conjunction with the Phoenix Dance Theatre, a Leeds-based contemporary dance company. With an explosive score by Stravinsky, it caused near riots at its first presentation in Paris in 1913. Listening to it for the first time tonight, it still sounds shockingly modern and challenging, even to 21st Century ears. Structured in two parts, ‘The Adoration of the Earth’ and ‘The Sacrifice’, the ballet was originally based on images of Russian folklore, aiming to conjure up a world of primitive religious ceremony and ritual sacrifice. Phoenix choreographer Jeanguy Saintus has re-imagined this in terms of his Haitian upbringing and the cultural influences of Vodou. His approach has been to create a “call and response” in the dance itself, which becomes ritualistic and echoes the “give and take between the realms of humans and the Invisibles”.
The choreography begins with a uniformity of movement, all eight dancers following a pattern, creating a feeling of community and tradition, of tribal conformity. Shortly, with the powerful alterations in direction of the music, they shift into randomised, individualised actions. The score is thrilling, energizing, contrasting layers of light and dark. Staccato pulses hover over thrumming bass notes to create a sound that is at once thrilling and threatening. A sudden burst of shrieking strings ignites the dancers into a frenzy, bodies jerking, as if possessed. The score surprises at every turn, with harmonic clashes, throbbing, deep notes, strident brass and a skittering of strings. Conductor Garry Walker drives the 40 plus orchestra to keep the energy high and looks both exhilarated and exhausted at the end of the piece!
So dynamic is the dance that there is little need for further embellishment. Yann Seabra’s flowing white costumes hint at classicism but are also quite modern in their gender neutrality. Presented against a dark stage and with minimal, directional lighting, all the focus is, rightly, on the vitality of the dancers. Very effective use is made of an ‘ombre’ painted effect on the dancers’ hands: green hands indicating birth and growth of Spring, red hands representing the earth and blood. Stravinsky’s discordant music is beautifully paired with stunning choreography to create a spectacular performance.
By way of contrast, Gianni Schicchi is a light-hearted, if cynical, comedy opera, based on an episode in Dante’s Inferno. Focused around the death-bed of a rich man, Buoso Donati, it points a finger at the greed of his scheming relatives who are plotting to gain a piece of his fortune. Director Christopher Alden extracts the maximum satire in this production, presenting the avaricious family as chic, modern day Italians, who are scarily recognisable. Puccini’s playful score supports the panoply of personalities in the story and includes one of his best-love arias, ‘O mio babbino caro’.
Designed by Charles Edwards, a simple stucco wall, decorated with black and white images of Florentine artworks from the renaissance, provides a backdrop for this disparate family. As if waiting at a bus-stop, they represent archetypes of society and ourselves: the glamorous aunt, the fading elder statesman, the spiv-like husband with a wandering eye and a precocious child, amongst others. All with regulation mirror sunglasses, for that proper Italian look. The striking nature of this opera is the depth and breadth of its characters. Each is brought to life with beautifully detailed costumes by Doey Luthi – what is it that makes them so ‘Italian’? It’s the man in a flowered shirt with a wool suit, or a woman in vertiginous high heels with a figure hugging skirt: the coifed hair, the polished presentation, the self-confidence. All this establishes each character immediately, but the strength of this performance is in the acting of the parts as much as the singing, all beautifully rendered three dimensional characters.
The figure of Buoso, our dead, rich, victim, remains on-stage, observing the machinations of the scheming family. The family engage Gianni Schicchi to help them regain control of the money, and he does so, whilst cleverly also lining his own pockets. Richard Burkhard is the calculating Gianni Schicchi with a twinkle in his eye, and perfectly balances the comedic with fatherly concern. He arranges the marriage of his daughter, Lauretta, to one of the family, helping him climb the social ladder. It is Lauretta’s pleading cry to her father which becomes ‘O mio babbino caro’, a song often performed as a solo, and sung with deep longing and tragedy. In the context of this comedy, it has a rather more manipulative tone! Tereza Gevorgyan has a voice like a silken cord and delivers this splendidly, without too much tongue in cheek.
Opera North demonstrate their progressive and adventurous programming with this double-bill and are ensuring the relevance and impact of classic pieces are maintained. With their next season already announced, expect more dynamic choices and imaginative presentations, along with the highest-quality levels of performance throughout.