Slapstick approach promises night of mirth

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Opera singers, from left, Anna Greenwood as Santuzza, James Penn as Turiddu, Veronica Thwaites-Brown as Lola and Andrew Barrow as Alfio in “Cavalleria Rusticana”. Photo: Michaella Edelstein

CANBERRA Opera is determined to entice new audiences into this enduring art form by staging two of the most famous short works in the repertoire.

Both “Gianni Schicchi” by Puccini and “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni are considered a “big sing”, and they’re easy to follow, especially as they’ll be performed in English. 

In “Gianni Schicchi”, which begins the night, Schicchi, a tricky father straight out of the Roman comedy tradition, devises a plan to ensure his daughter inherits a legacy and gets the guy. 

“Cavalleria Rusticana” (literally Rustic Chivalry) is more in the tradition of Sicilian-Greek tragedy as a jilted girl brings shame on herself and disaster on her lover in a Sicilian tale of revenge. No wonder director Francis Ford Coppola’s chose it to conclude “The Godfather Part III”. 

Melbourne opera director Kate Millett, here to stage the two works, has her own company, BK Opera in Melbourne, where she is known for her pared-back, strip operas on “black box” sets. 

“I prefer a minimalist approach, I need to focus on the acting and the singing,” she tells says.

“But I also like to bring a strong element of naturalism to the acting so the audience can relate to it.” 

“Cavalleria”, known as “Cav”, is the most famous “verismo” opera, so that’s no problem and, since both operas deal with ordinary people and real situations, Millett has no hesitation in updating.

“Gianni Schicchi”, for instance, is set in urban Florence, a very big city, so the plum title role of Gianni Schicchi, played by Canberra’s Colin Milner, becomes “a sleazy, used-car salesman-type”. 

“More an Italian stallion,” Milner suggests from the sidelines. 

“A comedy is more of a challenge because it has more moving parts, but my approach will be fairly slapstick,” Millett says.

“It’ll be set in the 1980s or the 1990s, and we’ll have a lot of fun with costumes, which will be full of colour.” 

But, she says, although the class divide is less relevant these days, there’s an element of timelessness in the story. 

When it comes to the vendetta-ridden plot of “Cav”, Millett perceives a slight problem in that the jilted woman Santuzza is ostracised by the villagers for having sex before marriage, pretty well unknown these days, so she’s set it in the late 1950s or early 1960s when there was still a bit of ambiguity about sexual mores. 

The “hero” Turiddu is turned from a soldier into a failed pop singer who’s come back to town. Alfio, his rival for the lovely Lola, is a merchant transporter instead of a carter. 

Enter Melbourne tenor and co-founder of BK Opera James Penn, dressed to the nines. He plays Turiddu and is enjoying being a “failed” singer, the sacrificial victim in an opera Millett says is “full of symbolism”. 

In her dark production, the chorus will be in “judgemental black” – “a lot of nonnos and nonnas standing by disapprovingly, representing society”. 

Conductor Louis Sharpe has been in Canberra for only a year and is tickled pink with the process of the opera, saying: “So far we haven’t had to cut anything” but that each opera won’t run much more than an hour. 

Millett believes the opera singers have reacted well to their directing approach because of their more contemporary, collaborative approach, and is happy to predict a curious kind of success in the set-up for the coming Canberra Opera production. 

“You start with a comedy, then you traumatise your audience,” she says.

In the most pleasant way, we hope.

“Gianni Schicchi” and “Cavalleria Rusticana”, Belconnen Theatre, August 23-September 1. Parental guidance is recommended. Book at


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