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Young directors deliver ‘scintillating’ night of opera

Lauren Fagan as Sister Angelica in Suor Angelica. Photo: Keith Saunders

Opera / Il Trittico, Opera Australia. At Sydney Opera House until July 19. Reviewed by BILL STEPHENS.

An inspired idea by artistic director Jo Davies to divide the directing duties for the production of Puccini’s Il Trittico between three of the country’s brightest young directors has resulted in a scintillating night of opera that offers something for everyone. 

Constantine Costi’s commission was Il Tabarro, a turgid tale of murder brought about by jealousy; Imara Savage was allotted Suor Angelica, Puccini’s all-female opera set in a convent, and Shaun Rennie drew the comic opera, Gianni Schicchi, which focuses on the shenanigans of an avaricious family fighting over their inheritance. 

Designer Michael Hankin was given the challenge of designing sets and costumes for all three operas, while Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya was engaged to conduct all three operas for her first Opera Australia engagement. 

Viktor Antipenko as Luigi and Simon Meadows as Michelle in Il Tabarro. Photo: Keith Saunders

Hankins’ detailed setting for Il Tabarro seemed rather more suggestive of a run-down apartment than a barge on the Seine. The presence of deckhands unenthusiastically loading provisions did little to defuse the claustrophobic atmosphere created by confining most of the playing area to one side of the stage. 

However, Costi with three world-class soloists at his disposal as the three protagonists in Simon Meadows as the brooding Michelle; Olivia Cranwell as his unhappy young wife, Giorgetta; and Viktor Antipenko as Giorgetta’s unfortunate lover, Luigi; and a dream supporting cast successfully created an aching sense of foreboding that reached its highpoint in Meadows’ superb rendition of Nulla! Silenzio! 

Hankins’ gorgeous white-on-white set and costumes for Savage’s superbly staged Suor Angelica achieved exactly the contemplative tone required for this opera. 

Establishing the mood at the beginning of the opera, Savage allows the audience to listen to the offstage nuns sing a gorgeous rendition of the Opening Prayer while contemplating the high white walls that enclose the garden that provides the only touch of colour. 

The nuns’ entrance to the garden to begin their daily chores dressed in spotless white habits introduced Sister Angelica for whom the garden is her only solace as she isolates herself from her fellow nuns to spend hours tending the plants while hopelessly dreaming of being reunited with the child from whom she was separated at birth.

Lauren Fagan is unforgettable as Sister Angelica. Her depiction of the nun’s response to being asked by La Principessa to give up her child, and her rendition of the aria, Senza Mamma, on learning of the child’s death, is almost unbearable to watch.

Fine performances from Angela Hogan as La Principessa, Adele Johnston as The Abbess, and Stacey Alleaume as the inquisitive Sister Genovieffa, together with the succession of superbly sung choruses would make Savage’s exquisite staging definitive, were it not for the final moments for which, hopefully, she might find a more imaginative solution for the miracle climax than having the child make his entrance riding a three-wheel bike. 

The cast of Gianni Schicchi. Photo: Keith Saunders

Intended by the composer as a release from the intense emotion evoked by the first two operas, the shenanigans of the Donati clan in his comic opera, Gianni Schicchi, could hardly fail. 

However this production contained several surprises. Among them, the inspired inventiveness of Rennie’s clever, high-camp staging, which took advantage of every nook and cranny of Hankins’ lavish, run-down Italian villa setting that the props department obviously had a field day furnishing; and the obvious relish of the cast in embracing Rennie’s silliness without in any way compromising the quality of their singing. 

Baritone Meadows, so impressive earlier as the dour Michelle in Il Tabarro, surprised with his delightfully light-hearted turn as the wily Gianni Schicchi. Adele Johnson, a vision in a purple satin ensemble, was ridiculously funny as Zita, the take-no-prisoner cousin of Buoso Donati. 

Providing stiff competition, the eye-catching antics of Kanen Breen as Buoso’s grasping nephew, Gherardo, enthusiastically supported by Jane Ede as his wife, Nella, and Millie Price as their obnoxious son, Gherardino. 

But among all the hilarity, the most memorable takeaway from this production of Gianni Schicchi was the flawless rendition by Stacy Alleaume of one of the most popular soprano arias in opera, O Mio Babbino Caro.

 

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