Sunday, August 25, 2019

Puccini and Mascagni brought to life by Canberra Opera

Gianni Schicchi and Cavalleria Rusticana, 
Canberra Opera
Belconnen Theatre
Opening night, August 23

Reviewed by Tony Magee

In an endearing combination of well seasoned and mature voices and acting skills, combined with the exuberance and budding development of youth, director Kate Millett has done an excellent job of keeping her casts moving and regrouping to create a small stage of continual visual interest and impact.

With the excellent coupling of the two short one act operas “Gianni Schicchi” by Puccini and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, Canberra Opera swept their audience from high comedy, leaving us all chuckling at interval, to tragedy and drama in the second half.

The settings have been altered to relatively modern times. In the case of “Schicchi”,  the concept of a group of relatives squabbling over the contents of a will could be set in any time and place!

In addition, the two works were sung in English, generally with impeccable diction from the cast, which made the engaging stories easy to follow and grasp.

Senior cast members Janene Broere as Zita and Peter Smith as Simone, with mature voices, establish a convivial but frustrating family meeting along with the youngsters, searching for and eventually finding a will from her late husband, whose corpse still lies in the curtained bed chamber within the room. Disappointment follows upon reading its contents.

Colin Milner as Gianni Schicchi Photo Michaella Edelstein
Enter Gianni Schicchi, played with commanding presence and a suitably robust baritone voice by seasoned performer Colin Milner. With daughter Lauretta in tow, who rushes up to eldest son Rinuccio, played and sung convincingly by Alastair Colgrave, (the two have obviously met before and are in love), Schicchi hatches a plan to try and sort out the mess.

He is viewed with deep suspicion by the elders. Any more plot summary would constitute spoilers, suffice to say that Schicchi turns out to be the deceitful rogue they suspected he might be.

In a compositional style which bears some similarity to “Turandot”, the opera is basically one continuous recitative with one main aria, that being the famous ‘Oh My Beloved Father” sung beautifully by Hannah Carter as Lauretta. There is also a short duet aria towards the end sung by Lauretta and Rinuccio - “You’re Mine Forever More”, which they performed very well.

Stephanie McAlister as Nella and Thomas Nolte-Crimp as Marco also stood out with engaging stage presence and acting flair, combined with voices of substance.

The excellent musical direction for this opera was by Michael Politi.

Cavalleria Rusticana after interval, presented the audience with a simple but highly effective set, suggesting a small village where everybody pokes their noses into everyone else’s business. With a much larger cast, there is a great deal of highly competent chorus singing with excellent harmonies and convincing and interesting staging.

The 1950s setting was beautifully understated, just a clever hint, with a 50s teenager and her portable period record player, sitting in her bedroom swooning over a record cover. As she dropped the needle onto the vinyl, it was timed to coincide with a little guitar piece (played beautifully from a keyboard by Colleen Rae-Gerrard), which although from the pen of Mascagni, could easily also have been an improvisation by Elvis Presley.

Anna Greenwood as Santuzza and James Penn as Turiddu both presented their substantial lead roles with confidence and vocal dexterity. Penn is trained in an early 20th century old school style of operatic tenor, something that is not heard much these days. His English diction is wanting, but his power and projection made up for that admirably. 

Andrew Barrow (Alfio) and Veronica Thwaites-Brown (Lola) 
As his rival Alfio, tenor Andrew Barrow presented as handsome a hero as one could possibly want. His voice is only at the beginning of development - adequate for the small stage and room, but clearly waiting to bloom forth into what could be a substantial voice as he matures.

In a beautiful orchestral break which divides the opera into two halves, the main theme which is well known to audiences was stated and played so beautifully by the small ensemble of musicians, with musical direction by Colleen Rae-Gerrard, who were also excellent throughout the entire evening. Curiously, it is never sung by anyone. Well deserved spontaneous applause erupted from the audience at its conclusion.

Conductor and newcomer to Canberra, Louis Sharpe, did a brilliant job of keeping a tight rein on the musicians and the cast. He is very skilled and a most welcome addition to Canberra’s musical family.

With the number of talented young singers in the cast, combined with the experience and wisdom of the more senior players, this all presents a great future for Canberra Opera. 

On the journey home in the car, my friend and I reflected on the fact that we’d had a great night out. You must see it!

First published in a slightly edited format in City News Digital Edition, August 24