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Review: La Vida Breve/Gianni Schicchi, Opera North, Newcastle Theatre Royal

Two short operas by Manuel da Falla and Puccini pave the way to the better known works to be performed at the Theatre Royal

***
© Bill Cooper Opera North's La Vida Breve
Opera North's La Vida Breve

This double bill of contrasting short operas from the early 20th Century was full of surprises, not all of them welcome.

Manuel da Falla’s La Vida Breve offers a lushly orchestrated soundscape of Spanish fire and sentiment, swooping emotion and plangent laments for love.

The story is operatic simplicity – gypsy heroine Salud (Anne Sophie Duprels, touchingly travelling from infatuation to desperation) has been seduced by a chap from a different social class.

Despite the efforts of grandmother and uncle she ends up dead at his wedding to a different bride.

Orchestral interludes allow plenty of time for fiery flamenco and on stage this can be as much a dancer’s as a singer’s opera.

Not here, though. Instead we had a depressing sweatshop of spiteful, downtrodden seamstresses, a sprinkling of self-harm, sexual aggression and masturbation and a sub-plot about a transvestite worker (amazingly sung by Daniel Norman, but entirely concocted for a production that chose to divorce itself from the original libretto).

© Bill Cooper Opera North's Gianni Schicchi
Opera North's Gianni Schicchi

Gianni Schicchi was new to me – Puccini going for broad humour with a medieval tale from Dante – so naturally I feared the worst.

Here, however, the modern setting was sharp, witty and beautifully acted, with greedy relatives disputing a will and being duped by a trickster.

The beautifully swooping aria everyone knows, O mio babbino caro, turns out to mean “Daddy, get me that boy”, but even in this cynical context Tereza Gevorgyan delivered it with moving simplicity.

In the title role, Christopher Purves was a comic delight, gauging precisely the wide-boy warmth beneath the guile as Gianni risks his soul, makes his fortune and marries off his daughter.

Special kudos to acrobatic choreographer Tim Claydon, whose silent, sinuous role as the wickedly active dead man watching his horrible heirs provided a piece of stage-craft both hilarious and hypnotic.

Gail-Nina Anderson

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