‘The Rite of Spring’ (Stravinsky, Phoenix Dance Theatre) and ‘Gianni Schicchi’ (Puccini, Opera North) at Leeds Grand Theatre, Saturday 16 Feb 2019
The combination of Stravinsky’s pagan religious ceremonies with Puccini’s comically undevout Christians makes for an evening which, whilst slightly jarring, is by turns harrowing and hilarious.
The Rite of Spring (1913)
Thanks to my other half, my housemate, Leeds buses, and a defective Uber app, I missed the beautiful, eerie, high bassoon solo which opens The Rite of Spring and arrived for the second subsection, ‘The Augurs of Spring’, whereat I found a team of eight dancers playing the parts of pagan youths dancing the stage with movements by turns graceful and violent. This was very much the theme and idée fixe of Jeanguy Saintus’ intelligent choreography, and was also reflected in Richard Moore’s lighting, which glided from cool to warm colours, depending on the intensity and temper of the music and dance.
The costumes, designed by Yann Seabra and realised by a team headed by Emma Louise James, were for the most part simple and unpretentious, and therefore most well suited to the rustic and pagan setting of the ballet. For the first half, each dancer wore a white, tunic-like trouser and vest which, whilst loose, seemed to be designed practically, so as to be easy to dance in. As the piece moved closer to the titular ‘rite’, in which one of the persons of the ballet – originally and usually a young girl – is to die by dancing him or herself to death in Dionysian frenzy, the dancers acquired (going off stage and returning) a white skirt which opened at the front to reveal a bright shock of primary colour for the inner lining.
Finally, the dancers pass around a much more colourful skirt, which is obviously for the elected sacrificial victim. This ends up on one of the male members of the cast, who, in the final bars of the music, performs the inevitable ‘Sacrificial Dance’. It was quite a clever feature of this production that we were kept guessing throughout – in genuinely surprising and involving ways – as to who would be subjected to the sacrifice, and the surprise was kept aloft until the last note of the music. (I should add that some paperwork in my programme tells me that ‘there is no sacrifice of human life’, the dances being based on Haitian initiation rites. But, since this was not obvious or evident from the staging itself, I have decided puritanically to take my evidence from the stage rather than the page.)
This was then, an effective revisit of this now classic piece which, rather like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, has, despite all its genius, become so commonly played, honoured, borrowed from, and parodied as to have lost the chief part of its effect. The intelligence and originality of this staging, however, certainly brought new life to the piece.
Gianni Schicchi (1918)
Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi was the evening’s main event and, despite the brilliance of the performance of the Rite, really stole the show. The production was a little busy in its endless variety of stage action, but, then again, it is intrinsically a busy opera. The plot concerns a family of avaricious money-grubbers, all of whom (with the exception of one) are after the money of their recently deceased relative, Buoso Donati. (Indeed, this production goes so far as to show, in a comic manner, one of the family smothering Buoso Donati with a pillow whilst on his deathbed.) As a consequence of this plot, the stage is crammed with around ten people for most of its duration, with the result that there are little localised dumb shows and scenes going on simultaneously on the stage at almost every point of the opera. There was far too much to be able to describe everything, but I hope to mention the highlights of this entertaining and moving production.
The curtain is aloft long before the opera starts. There is a white plaster wall at the back of the stage, decorated by a banner at the top of thumbnail versions of medieval and Renaissance pictures – Raphael’s Annunciation and Giovanni da Modena’s Satan being the two I was learned enough to identify – and, puzzlingly, a donkey strung upside down hanging from the rafters.
By the law of Chekhov’s gun, this ought to have offered some great pay-off at the end of the opera, but this never came, and the prop was more or less there only for superfluous amusement, although there was an amusing moment when one of the cast was embracing and virtually kissing the donkey (it being a valued commodity), whereon the phrase ‘flogging a dead horse’ came to mind.
Silently, a young chap in modern dress – who we later find out is Rinuccio (Diego Silva), perhaps the opera’s protagonist, if it has one – steps onto the stage with an aged volume in his hand, and leans against a pillar of the Leeds Grand as he opens the book and begins to read. It is clear that this is supposed to be Dante’s Divina Commedia – the source for the Gianni Schicchi story (specifically, Inferno, XXX) – since Tim Claydon’s Dante walks slowly and rheumatically onto the stage with a candle. This representation of il poeta, as the Italians call him, was very well done, mimicking closely the costume, manner, and expression seen in the various famous depictions of Dante; and I must say that, since Dante was one of my personal heroes for many years, it was a delight to see such a representation of him, though I cannot understand why this elicited giggles from the audience, since Claydon’s Dante did not do anything funny.
He did, however, when, during the overture, he removed his Dante costume to reveal bedclothes and wheeled a medieval-looking bed onto the stage. Getting in it, it was obvious he was now representing the person of the dying Buoso Donati. As he imitates a dying man on stage, his family – mostly cousins of middle age, but with the younger Rinuccio and the very young Gherardino (Ben Hinchliffe/Frazer Lee), who spends the whole night in a cute little Price of Wales check suit, forever looking at an iPad with headphones on – filter onto the stage in modern dress, the polish of which speaks volumes about their characters’ focus on material wealth. Little Gherardino provokes a great laugh when he takes a selfie with the dead Buoso Donati. Eight of the nine family members, as I have said, represent greed, and could essentially be played by one actor for a much clearer and streamlined opera. But Puccini obviously wanted the commotion – musical and dramatic – of eight people all clamouring for the contents of the late Buoso Donati’s will, which is the sole interest of the drama, save for Rinuccio’s much greater interest in Gianni Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta (played wonderfully by Tereza Gevorgyan).
Gianni Schicchi is brought in by the family to play the part of the dying Buoso Donati when the family, learning that Buoso’s will leaves everything to the nearby monastery, decide simply to commit fraud and to have Gianni Schicchi rewrite the will whilst impersonating Buoso. Of course, one knows that all this will go wrong and that poetic justice will be served: but the opera does keep one guessing as to how exactly that will happen. In the end, Gianni Schicchi simply betrays them and reserves the most valuable part of the will for himself – a sneaky move which we end up admiring partly for its cleverness, but mainly because it is impossible to sympathise with the family of Buoso Donati.
Throughout the one-act opera there is not so much a sense of ‘stage traffic’ (as Shakespeare puts it) as utter stage gridlock. Claydon’s Buoso Donati never really leaves the stage but reanimates after his death in order silently to haunt the characters. Thanks to a wonderful makeup job, and Claydon’s excellent control of gesture, he seems not just ghostlike, but at times like a zombie, or some infernal revenger – especially when he prowls the stage, threateningly holding aloft an axe which, like the donkey, is never actually used and so seems somewhat superfluous and unsatisfying.
All this stage business gives way, however, to the finest point in the whole evening, which is Tereza Gevorgyan’s performance of Lauretta’s famous aria, ‘O mio babbino caro’. Like the Rite, this overplayed piece has almost lost its effect. However, Gevorgyan’s stunning rendition – supported both by the sensitive accompaniment of the Orchestra of Opera North and a nearly empty stage made tiny by the wall’s being brought almost to the very stage-edge – made Puccini’s aria sound not like it was written yesterday, but rather as though the ink were still drying on the manuscript. When the rapturous applause broke out, it was well deserved.
Although not my favourite production of Opera North’s recent years – which have been almost unfailingly excellent – it is certainly a virtuoso production in which everyone in cast and crew seems to be on the top of their game. Particularly impressive were the set designs of Charles Edwards, the costume design of Doey Lüthi, and of course Christopher Alden’s direction. The Orchestra of Opera North sounded as well as ever, even if their Rite was a tad tame when compared with some other versions – of which there are hundreds on record.
The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi, although written within a couple of years of one another, do not strike one as the easiest pairing, and indeed the combination is jarring, although the reminder of how diverse the creations of European music at this particular time were is quite an impressive basis for reflection.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.