Gianni Schicchi in Christchurch, starring Martin Snell and Anna Argyle

Gianni Schicchi by Puccini. Southern Opera, conducted by Peter Walls, diected by Mark Hadlow with Martin Snell, Virgilio Marino, Grant Dickson, Anna Argyle; players from the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

James Hay Theatre, Christchurch Town Hall; Saturday 12 March

Gianni Schicchi is the third part of a trilogy (Il Trittico – Triptych) that Puccini wrote in 1918 and was first performed at the Met in New York in January 1919. It’s the one comedy in the group and the only real comedy that he wrote (La Rondine is an ‘operetta’ rather than a comic opera).

I was surprised to find the auditorium on the Saturday, the second performance, only about half full, perhaps 500. I gathered that the first night has been fairly full, presumably by sponsors and their guests and other free-riders. The audience was somewhat larger on the Sunday when I saw it again. That may have been because the Saturday performance was competing with the Final of the National Concerto Competition with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra next door in the Town Hall. But that might not be the main reason, and I return to the question of the choice of this opera below.

The opera itself, an hour long, occupied the second half of the evening. The first half comprised a recital of opera arias and ensembles: six vocal extracts from various operas. There was no real pretence that this was the company’s first choice, for clearly another short opera, such as most companies would present, would have been normal and might have pulled bigger crowds.

Because the opening performances fell during the Ellerslie Flower Show, the first half was called Blooming Opera, and most excerpts had a floral connection, if sometimes pretty tenuous.

The programme had listed Puccini’s lovely quartet movement Chrysanthemum as the evening’s prelude – certainly highly appropriate, but it was not played.

Grant Dickson sang a sonorous ‘Ombra mai fu’ (a lime tree rather than flowers, but you got the idea), and Virgilio Marino, the Rinuccio in the opera, did the Flower Song from Carmen, a little stiffly. Rachel Doig and Maree Hawtin-Morrow shared the Flower Duet from Lakmé, a pretty blending of voices, and Stu Miles aand Stephen Chambers shared the predictable ‘Flowers that bloom in the Spring’ from Mikado,

More tenuous in the floral context were Anna Argyle’s Maiden and the Nightingale from Goyescas by Granados and Martin Snell’s Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni, a demonstration of polished wit, gesture and timing. All joined in the final ensemble from Figaro.

The director of the production, Mark Hadlow, introduced each item with a few comments about the aria and its opera and about the singer(s). His style seemed vaudevillian rather than in a neutral style that an opera audience might have expected; and the impression was slightly patronising, lending an unneeded amateur tone to the evening.

Unorthodox perhaps, but amusing and engaging. given an audience not much exposed to polished, live opera productions; evidence: breaking into applause a couple of times in the middle of quite well-known arias or duets.

The opera itself was a very considerable success. It was well cast, with strong singers in the main roles, and more than adequate singers – almost all from Christchurch – in the secondary roles. All were well suited to their roles and with musical guidance of conductor Peter Walls, met the demands both of their own roles and the opera as a whole.

The star of the evening, without a doubt, was bass Martin Snell in the title role, a former Mobil Song Quest winner and one of the half-dozen most successful New Zealand singers in the international opera arena today: he is based in Switzerland and has sung in major productions in most of the important houses, including the Wagner festival at Bayreuth. The polish, seriousness, subtlety and clarity of his performance was the critical element in the cumulative comic finale.

The credit for the entire dramatic impact however must go to Mark Hadlow; if he showed uncertainty in presenting the first half, his sure hand as a theatre director shone through in the opera itself. The handling of the aspiring beneficiaries was fluid, natural, sometimes formal in a satirical way, well distributed and balanced around the flexible stage area. He knows that the essential stuff of the comedy is in the words and the music, not in superficial gesture or farce; and the social satire at its heart was all the more sharp and funny because of it.

Southern Opera employed an all-New Zealand cast, apart from the tenor role of Rinuccio, Australian Virgilio Marino, who sang it convincingly.

It struck me that the young tenor, Stephen Chambers, who sang Marco, might have proved a very adequate Rinuccio.

It is an ensemble opera, depending not on strong individual roles apart from Schicchi himself, but on the effectiveness of the groupings of the venal family members, their interaction and their chorus-like dismay at the unfolding reality of the old man’s will. Certain members stood out somewhat: Maree Hawtin-Morrow and New Zealand’s most distinguished living bass, Grant Dickson, as Buoso’s cousins Zita and Simone. Rachel Doig as Nella and Stephen Chambers also caught the ear. Non-family members included the Lauretta of Anna Argyle whose part is small other than the hit tune, ‘O mio babbino caro’. The distinctive Valery Maksymov was Betto of Signa, and both the Doctor and the Notary were strikingly performed by Stu Myles and Sam Abbott.

The orchestra, strangely, was the only weak point, occasionally too loud, covering voices, and sometimes revealing weaknesses in articulation and ensemble. The score had been reduced by Michael Vinten for performance by about 20 players which certainly left players exposed at times, even wind players for whom such exposure is normal.

This may have been the result of the need to share orchestra members with the Concerto Competition.

Both stage and costume designs, by Mark McEntyre and Alistair McDougall, fitted the chosen period – the late 19th century – perfectly, and that shift of 600 years seemed unexceptional, no doubt just as rich in family hypocrisy and greed as any other period. The set, in particular, was ingenious and entertaining, with a revolving bed that was used with studied wit.

Both stage and musical directors were experienced New Zealanders, not a common practice of Christchurch’s predecessor company.

The next step, of course should be the regular engagement of a young assistant stage director to build experience in that area.




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