Il tabarro & Gianni Schicchi
Cambridge Arts Theatre
English Touring Opera brought its production of two of the operas in Puccini's Il trittico to Cambridge recently, as well as Figaro, which unfortunately I wasn't able to go to. The production and performance of Il tabarro was the most convincing I have seen. Usually I feel that with this opera Puccini is worthily doing something different from any of his previous operas, and incidentally creating the only work which can justly be said to be verismo – a term ludicrously used for such markedly untruthful works as Andrea Chenier and Adriana Lecouvreur, as well as Puccini's earlier works. With Il tabarro he virtually becomes the Zola of opera, grimly portraying the precarious and tedious life of bargees on the Seine.
There are few lyrical flights, and the ones that there are get cut short; or, in the brief references to La bohème he reminds us of the kind of glamourised world that he is used to creating. The only trouble with that is that one can start feeling the monotony oneself, and I have more often than not found that in performances of Il tabarro. In this one, however, thanks in large part to the expert conducting of Michael Rosewell – is there a more reliable and versatile operatic conductor anywhere at the – there is always a sense of moving on, even if to catastrophe. The sets are the most convincing I have seen, too, in their cramped squalour, at the same time as they provide a convincing setting for the action.
The three central characters all give outstanding performances. Sarah-Jane Lewis as the unloved Giorgetta makes a perfect downtrodden and love-craving wife, and the brief period in which she and her husband stop quarrelling is an understated high point of the score. Lewis has a sumptuous voice, though here there isn't much chance for her to use it, and is a superb actress – surely with a big future. Her miserable and vengeful husband Michele is taken by Craig Smith, eloquent in every word and gesture, sympathetic even in his vengefulness. The stevedore Luigi, Giorgetta's would-be lover, is Charne Rochford, slightly gritty of tone to begin with, but as he becomes more passionate his voice opens up in a way suggesting a fine future as a lyric singer. All the minor roles are expertly taken, too, and the result is an extraordinarily satisfying hour.
If Gianni Schicchi is less successful, that is because almost all the actors mug relentlessly, many of them specialising in unfunny walks which someone must have told them are hilarious. The only way to play any comedy, but above all operatic comedy, is straight. Human beings behaving as human beings do, especially when they are being insincere, are quite funny enough. Surely the director of the opera knows that? Anyway, we get complacent fooling most of the way through, though the hero/villain, played by Andrew Slater, is immune to the tiresome clowning that mainly surrounds him. And the Lauretta, Galina Averina, who spends most of her time walking high above the main action, is also tasteful, and sings her famous aria without making a meal of it. The only thing that is needed to turn this production form intermittent wry enjoyment to sustained delight is cooling it – but that is something opera singers find it hard to do.