Updated: May 31, 2021
Stravinsky; Forzano & Puccini
Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre
Grand Theatre, Leeds
16 February 2019 - 2 March 2019, 2hr 5min inc 30min interval
At The Lowry, Salford, on 8 March 2019
One thing’s for certain about this double bill – you get value for your money. It’s unusual for an opera company to include a dance show on the same night as an opera, even more so when the dance show is Stravinsky’s ground-breaking, big-orchestra-requiring The Rite of Spring, and the opera is Puccini’s glorious, 16-role, comedy-with-a-hit-aria-thrown-in, Gianni Schicchi.
Opera North get together with Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre to deliver the goods, and how they deliver.
The first big reward is the quality of the orchestral playing in The Rite. It’s become a concert hall staple more than a ballet company favourite, and I’ve heard a few concert versions in my time, but never with quite the rawness and electric energy that the Opera North orchestra delivered – albeit in a reduced-size version – under Garry Walker’s baton. It would have been wonderful just to listen with my eyes shut.
But I didn’t, because the second reward was Jeanguy Saintus’ choreography and the Phoenix dancers’ performance. They are a contemporary company, and this was a reinterpretation of the score, because that’s what contemporary dance companies do. They don’t have the traditional principals and corps de ballet of the classicalists – just eight dancers in all, and despite the fact that The Rite has its ‘numbers’, with titles that imply a narrative (of a pagan sacrificial ceremony to placate the gods of spring in primitive Russia), Saintus takes his cues from the music and gives us movement that springs from the sounds themselves.
There are images of savage, brutal frenzy, and a victim singled out (more than one in different settings), but that’s about as near to a narrative as you get. Still, it’s exciting stuff, often presenting the eight in a phalanx or divided in even numbers, and, considering the fact that there’s no set at all, remarkably colourful by virtue of the costume design alone (Yann Seabra).
And then there was Gianni. Puccini wrote it as a one-act comedy to finish an evening, and in Christopher Alden’s directorial hands it does that brilliantly. This is a revival of his production of 2015, and he goes for laughs from the start, with a dead mule suspended above the stage (we find out what that’s about later in the story) and a little mime sequence in which Dante, the original creator of the story, pops up and then morphs into the about-to-be deceased Buoso Donati, tugging his own deathbed around the stage.
The tale is about the greedy and venal relatives of the late Buoso, how they scheme to get their hands on his assets when he’s left them all to a monastery, and the man of the title role who comes up with the idea of impersonating the dead man and dictating a fake will before anyone finds out. He does what they want, but makes himself wealthy in the process, too – and what can they do, as they’re all accomplices?
It’s exceptionally well acted by Richard Burkhard as Gianni (as well as sung) and the other principals and characters, and with Alden’s help they differentiate each one to much comic effect, and the music comes over richly in Walker’s care.
And there’s the show-stopping aria, O mio babbino caro, delightfully sung by Tereza Gevorgyan as Gianni’s daughter Lauretta, the young inamorata of penniless Rinuccio, to both of whom he grants the fulfilment of their dreams in the course of his subterfuge. It’s a plea to her dad to help them out of the black hole of Buoso’s meanness to his family, when the other interested parties don’t trust him anyway.
Usually it’s sung in the death chamber with everyone listening, which brings a dramatic problem because you wonder how her words to him can make any difference to anything – or else you have to conclude that it’s all simulated emotion because the two of them have plotted the whole thing in advance.
Alden clears the stage and presents it just as a moment of pure beauty in the midst of a naughty world, almost unrelated to the rest. And everyone always applauds it, so that’s fine.