It’s the end of a fantastic spring season by Opera North at Salford’s Lowry. My companion tonight is The Blonde (The Brunette and The Blonde are both called Susan, so hair colour helps me to distinguish between them). Both have given up alcohol so I feel like I have to drink for two or three. Again, as the night progresses, hair colour helps. What they have in common is that they are both excellent company – that I don’t have to remember. Tonight’s performance will be interesting as, like my companions, it is a distinctive pairing.
Puccini’s Gianni Schacci, a one-hour comic opera, is being paired with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for the first time. It is a unique juxtaposition because The Rite of Spring is a ballet, here performed by the Phoenix Dance Theatre. First performed in 1913 in Paris, it caused a riot. I saw a lot of riots in my Belfast childhood though I have to say none of them were in a theatre. I guess we weren’t as cultured as the Parisians. Stravinsky’s score was so provocative that even Puccini called it ‘the work of a madman’. The Rite of Spring is still as provocative more than a century later.
The music jars and cajoles at every turn. The opening eerie lyricism of Adoration of the Earth soon gives way to the pounding rhythm of the Augurs of Spring as Stravinsky beat his French audience out of their fin de siècle romantic slumbers. The ballet was danced by eight members of the Phoenix Dance Theatre, a company founded nearly 40 years ago in Leeds to give dancers of diversity a platform to develop their talents. I admit that this was my first ballet in about the same time period (a disastrous visit to Ballet Rambert in 1979 springs to mind). The Phoenix dancers (Manon Adrianow, Natalie Alleston, Aaron Chaplin, Carmen Vazquez Marfil, Carlos J Martinez, Michael Marquez, Vanessa Vince-Ping and Prentice Whitlow) performed with energy and synchronised grace much to the admiration of The Blonde, an aficionado in these matters. The choreography of Jeanguy Saintus impressed as much Stravinsky’s score moved. It made me want to see more.
Like the Odd Couple, Gianni Schacci seemed a strange bedfellow to follow the ballet. It is a single act comic opera normally paired with the tragic Sister Angelica. When done well, the comic and the tragic Puccinis are a good fit. I was surprised to find that the funny opera went together well with the revolutionary ballet, just like Matthau and Lemmon. Drawn from an incident in The Divine Comedy, Gianni Schacci (Richard Burkhard) is employed by a dodgy Italian family (think incompetent Sopranos) to rewrite the will of their dead uncle, Buoso Donati (an agile Tim Clayton). He tricks them into keeping the spoils for himself and funding the forthcoming marriage of his daughter, Lauretta (Tereza Gevorgyan) and Rinuccio (Diego Silva), a young relative of Donati.
The most famous aria from Schacci is O mio babbino caro (oh, my beloved father) which Tereza Gevorgyan, as Lauretta, sang with such tenderness it brought a tear to my eye. The rest of the performance was done with such knockabout joy that the tear soon evaporated, and I smiled heartily. Richard Burkhard’s Schacci was timed to comic perfection and the key to his success.
The Blonde and I agreed it was a great evening and a high note on which to finish an impressive spring season for Opera North. We at OperaWatch have come to expect nothing less.