Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi | The Lowry: March 8, 2019

Jeanguy SAINTUS’ choreography rose to meet the relentlessly challenging score of The Rite of Spring. Although it stayed true in some moments to Stravinsky’s initial vision of ritual sacrifice, wherein ‘a young girl danc[es] herself to death,’ to honour the god of spring, the piece widened to become an evocation of ritual itself. It was a cast of disciplined performers going through precise motions, aching for some sign from a higher power that their efforts were worthwhile. The expressive ability of an ensemble is greater than a sole performer, which is not a new concept in either dance or cultural ritual. However, watching them cast together so bluntly at a time when the relationship between many people and any form of ritual is fractured, I was struck by how little of this feeling remains in me. It made me miss going to church. Not because I regret suspending the practice, but because I regret that my life is missing that collective relief. The dancers stirred the air with their limbs and brought into being a narrative that changed the energy inside the theatre irrevocably. The dancers worked together seamlessly, but the work of Michael Marquez and the fine detail of his expression couldn’t help but stand out.

The costumes, designed by Yann Seabra, enhanced the collective movement with shy pops of colour among the nimble drapery. At moments, the hands of the dancers were tinted green or red in the most explicit representation of spring and renewal. Many of the male dancers’ hands turned red during one sequence in a tableau that piled them up with a pair of hands stretched upward. It brought to mind the gentle shedding of velvet from antlers to reveal the nourishing blood underneath. There is something comforting about the work of an excellent dance company when not every composition has an obvious association, but as an audience member, you can sense that careful consideration for narrative underpins every moment.

The second half of the evening was a bit of a pivot, to Puccini’s one-act comic opera, Gianni Scicchi, also conducted beautifully by Garry Walker.The opera was staged with a timeless aesthetic that included a night cap (and an iPad), but came together under a spell of Versace-style sunglasses that made the Florentine countryside seem plausibly just out of sight.

Tim Claydon as Buoso performed an extended slapstick death scene at the beginning of the opera, then returned throughout as either Buoso again, or Dante Alighieri, from whose Divine Comedy Puccini’s librettist teased a story from just a few lines. Claydon’s performance grew from that of a (hilarious) corpse to one that had him dangling from the gallery on a thick piece of rope, or performing other acrobatics that contrasted with his clowning to the delight of the audience.

The family’s acrimony in the opera is due to Buono leaving his entire estate to the Friars at Signa. Rinuccio, sung by Diego Silva in his Opera North debut, holds the will but refuses to share its contents unless his aunt Zita (Leah-Marian Jones) promises to allow him to marry Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta (Tereza Gevorgyan). It is agreed, and upon realizing Buono’s intentions, the family decides to call in Schicchi for his cunning.

The title role was sung with appropriate bravado and gut-warming richness by Richard Burkhard. Schicchi convinces the family of the recently-deceased Buono that he should impersonate him and rewrite the will in their favour. The short opera got more laughs than any full length comic opera I’ve attended, in part because it was staged irreverently enough to let the audience know that laughter was encouraged. Opera can be alienating for some people, but this performance of Gianni Schicchi reminded me that good programming keeps the art form exciting for newcomers and aficionados alike.

The earnest love story between Lauretta and Rinuccio puts a stop to all the buffoonery during the aria, ‘O, mio babbino caro’, which is a beautiful, familiar piece that I had no idea came from this work. It caught me off guard and Tereza Gevorgyan gave an outstanding, tender performance that amounted to the operatic equivalent of a mic drop. It’s a show-stopper, it sticks out from the rest of the work in a distracting manner, but that doesn’t stop it from being delightful.

Placing The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi together seemed like an unlikely pairing but it meant that the tension created by SAINTUS’ choreography transformed into comic catharsis.

by Marsha Courneya

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