Opera North: The Rite of Spring & Gianni Schicchi – Lowry Theatre

Opera North’s double bill of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi combines two thunderous pieces of classical music with dance and opera. I am a complete novice with all three of these art forms. I have only seen two operas before, Tosca and The Magic Flute. I have only ever attended one dance performance, and most of my knowledge of classical music comes from Disney’s Fantasia. This is a review from a newbie’s perspective of two unfamiliar pieces of theatre.

Phoenix Dance Theatre’s performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Photo Credit – Tristram Kenton

Presented by Phoenix Dance Theatre, this 40 minute performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a piece of contemporary dance. The only time I have heard this composition before is in Fantasia. It is the part depicting the extinction of the dinosaurs and the Earth’s rebirth after this apocalypse. I have the impression that Stravinsky’s musical score is a difficult one to formulate a dance to. It is deliberately jarring and discordant in places, and genuinely uncomfortable to listen to. Experiencing The Rite of Spring performed live by an orchestra is sensational, its dramatic power undeniable.

However, I failed to be stirred by the dance aspect of this piece. As a beginner, I struggled to identify the narrative without the programme’s assistance. In complete contrast to the dramatic music, its design is disappointing. Against a black stage, dancers wear identical, simple white costumes. Flourishes of colour are added to their costumes gradually, representing spring. Whilst symbolic, when having seen the impressive, imposing sets of Tosca and The Magic Flute, this empty, blank space left me feeling disappointed. It made me question the justification of putting it on the Lowry Theatre’s vast stage, and its inclusion in Opera North’s programme alongside grand operas.

There is no doubt that Phoenix Dance Theatre are a group of incredibly talented dancers. It is certainly refreshing to see such a diversity of performers onstage. The skill, stamina and energy needed to dance to Stravinsky’s score is admirable, but as a newbie, I found this an impenetrable piece of dance that I failed to understand.

A scene from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Photo credit – Tristram Kenton.

Puccini’s one-act opera, Gianni Schicchi, couldn’t be more different! This is a satirical comedy based on a brief episode from Dante’s Inferno. It is a universally timeless story of a rich man dying, and his extended family fighting for a share of his fortune. When Buoso Donati leaves his entire wealth to the Friars at Signa, the family enlist the help of conman Gianni Schicchi to impersonate Buoso, changing his will to include a share for each of them. As comic hilarity ensues, “One man’s loss is another man’s gain“.

Firstly, Puccini’s opera is sung in Italian, which means you are reliant on captions to understand the narrative. Previously, this hasn’t been too much of an issue for me. But there are moments in Gianni Schicchi, during the family’s squabbling, where there is simply too much happening on stage to effectively flick between the two. As a result, parts of the opera are missed, as it is impossible to be able to focus on both. This is a real shame as some members of the audience were laughing at what was happening on stage, whilst I was reading the captions. I felt excluded and I ended up missing a lot of the visual comedy.

Dante haunts the family. Photo Credit – Tristram Kenton

Again, the set design was disappointing, compared to the lavish Opera North productions I have previously seen. Consisting of a decorated white wall, a death bed, and a dead mule, it is a simplistic set that is largely uninspiring. However, it occasionally allows for some amusing visual comedy, with the family lining up against the white wall, a homage to The Usual Suspects. It also serves as a climbing frame for the dead Buoso, reincarnated as Dante, in red attire, to haunt the scene, thriving off the chaos that he has caused. Movement director Tim Claydon plays Buoso and Dante. His aerial acrobatics are truly remarkable to behold.

Gianni Schicchi is has strong performances from all singers, most notably Tereza Gevorgyan’s Lauretta. Lauretta’s aria, O mio babbino caro, is one that even novices will recognise. Gevorgyan’s beautiful, anthemic rendition gives you goosebumps. It is a sublimely captivating song, rightfully deserving of the applause she received. Her relationship with Diego’s Silva’s Rinuccio is intoxicating. The two lovers are the only truly likeable characters in the play, and I found myself rooting for them. Hoping for a happy ending to their relationship, I prayed that Gianni Schicchi could ensure that his daughter finds happiness.

Overall, Opera North’s double bill of The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi is a night of two halves. An impenetrable dance followed by a short, amusing opera. Thematically, the two pieces have nothing in common. It creates a peculiar combination, which didn’t work for me, as I found the second piece much stronger than the first.

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