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Review: La Vida Breve/Gianni Schicchi (State Opera of South Australia)

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Review: La Vida Breve/Gianni Schicchi (State Opera of South Australia)

by Vincent Plush on September 1, 2017 (September 1, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Comment Now
★★★★½ An utterly captivating and delightful experience that deserved a longer season.

Adelaide Town Hall
August 30, 2017

In short, this was a totally delightful evening, a near-triumph for Adelaide’s resident opera company. The sustained ovation by a near-capacity audience was well deserved. Such a pity there are to be only two performances. It deserves a season of at least a week.

On first glance, the coupling of Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi seemed an odd, even unlikely prospect. On closer examination, it makes some deal of sense. Both are about an hour long. The dozen or so singers in Falla can readily migrate into the 16-member cast of the Puccini. The orchestra is about the same. Both operas were premiered close to each other: the Falla in Paris in 1913, the Puccini in New York in 1918. The ghost of Wagner hovers ominously over both, largely for satiric effect.

There have been even less likely combinations. Schicchi has been paired with La Bohème, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight. An American composer, Michael Ching, has even created a one-act sequel in English, Busco’s Ghost, which premiered in Pittsburgh in 1996. (Now, there’s an idea for an enterprising opera company…)

Gianni Schicchi, State Opera of South AustraliaDouglas McNicol as Gianni Schicchi for State Opera of South Australia. Photo © Bernard Hull

No doubt the choice of coupling and casting was the work of the former Artistic Director/CEO Timothy Sexton, who stepped down from his multi-functional roles several weeks ago. Charitable souls will acknowledge that the success of this double-bill owes some deal to his erudite judgement.

Nicholas Cannon directed the Falla, Douglas McNicol directed the Puccini and sang its eponymous title role. Both directors made excellent use of the limited space available. In a splendidly imaginative stroke, McNicol had his cast make entrances and exits through the centre aisle of the stalls; only at one moment, though, did a pair of singers appear within the orchestra, at the seat of the organ console.

La Vida Breve, State Opera of South AustraliaGiséle Blanchard and Brenton Spiteri in La Vida Breve. Photo © Bernard Hull

The action for both operas – pointedly, neither period nor place was unambiguously designated – was placed in the faux Baroque/Georgian auditorium of the Adelaide Town Hall, directly in front of the imposing Grand Organ. The orchestra, in concert garb, was in customary concert position with the stage action occurring in front of them. In the Falla, the chorus was divided in two identical flanks on either side of the stage. Surtitles were projected on large screen monitors on either side of the stage. They should have been called “Side-titles”: no doubt many in the audience retired to bed with sore necks, as they struggled to follow the ping-pong delivery of the text. (That text, by the way, was marred by gaps and errors: “statutes” became “statues”, “seize” was spelled “sieze”, and so on.)

All well and good, so far. There was a serviceable lighting rig which delivered two shades, blood red and concert neutral. The printed programme contained no credit for costumes or makeup. The Falla cast may have been left to rummage through the company wardrobe of cast-offs from years of Carmens. The Puccini cast may have acquired bargains from St Vinnies.

But for one notable exception, the cast was uniformly good. Most managed to acquit those curly Spanish melismatas of the cante jondo effectively. All played the over-the-top histrionics of Puccini’s commedia dell’arte characters with great abandon. (They recalled the famous Woody Allen direction of Trittico in Los Angeles in 2008.)

Of the many vocal highlights, the most affecting was Desiree Frahn’s delivery of the evergreen O mio babbino caro. Sung without affectation, it was very affecting, and a show-stopper. In the lead female role in the Falla, Giséle Blanchard gave a vivid depiction of Salud, the woman spurned. In both operas, tenor Brenton Spiteri impressed with his natural, clarion-clear singing and stagecraft. In the Puccini, Douglas McNicol was a gruff and booming Schicchi, a crafty plumber whose jacket uniform bore the logo “Idee e fluenti” (yes, there were ideas aplenty, and several sewerage-related allusions).

With his “Tradie’s” undies and other touches (mobile phones, selfies and filing cabinets), McNicol’s production came very close to contemporary time and place. A braver production might have transposed the whole affair to contemporary Adelaide: there were surely OAFs (Old Adelaide Families) in the audience who may have shuddered at the recognition of the pre-funeral shenanigans within their own clans.

An even braver production would translate the entire production into contemporary English (or its Adelaide equivalent). In both operas, the same question might have been addressed: do we need to be slaves of the libretto? In his brief director’s note, McNicol admits that “the story of Schicchi is timeless and geographically universal.”

Perhaps Adelaide is still recovering from the experience of Peter Sellars, whose abrupt withdrawal from the 2002 Adelaide Festival still leaves some locals clucking with pride and relief. Doubtless the American iconoclast would have had little hesitation in replacing Sigma with Sydney and updating time and place from Florence of 1299 to the Adelaide Hills of today. It is all well and good to adhere to the purity of the original text and one applauds historical authenticity and other shibboleths. However, if adherence to “original language” impedes the understanding of a contemporary audience and its recognition of “universal” truths, why bother to continue to milk sacred cows?

Another critical dimension. From my less-than-optimal position, in the middle of the third row of the stalls, the issue of balance between singers and orchestra presented some difficulties. Both composers were master orchestrators. Their scores are big, bold, brilliant and hugely colourful. The ever-reliable Brian Castles-Onion and his 70-piece band were having a very good time; at times the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra played and sounded like the Australian World Orchestra.

But even the most experienced singers, some of them veterans of SOSA super-productions of almost four decades, struggled to surmount the tsunami of orchestral sounds enveloping them. If the ASO had been laid out in pit formation, with winds and brass playing across the stage instead of playing directly into the singers and audience, balance could have been resolved more satisfactorily.

Despite this, it would be hard to imagine anyone in that audience who did not emerge from the museum-like time-capsule of the Adelaide Town Hall without a smile on the face and a tune in the head. Make no mistake: this was an utterly captivating and delightful experience.

Let’s hope that SOSA will continue along its historic path of delivering unfamiliar productions that stir the imaginations and excite the senses.