Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Two out of three from Puccini’s Il Trittico boldly and confidently presented by the NZSM

By , 19/07/2019

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:
PUCCINI – Suor Angelica / Gianni Schicchi (from “Il Trittico”)

Cast(s):  Suor Angelica

Suor Angelica………………..Michaela Cadwgan
The Princess………………….Margaret Medlyn
The Abbess……………………Teresa Shields
The Monitress……………….Jennifer Huckle
Sister Genovieffa……………Olivia Stewart
Sister Osmina………………..Lydia Joyce
Sister Dolcina………………..Ruby McKnight
Sister Lucilla………………….Sinéad Keane
Alms sisters…………………..Shaunagh Chambers / Simon Hernyak
Novices and lay sisters……Nikita Aranga / Caitlin Roberts
Ruobing Wang / Emily Yeap
Boy……………………………….Edward Usher

Gianni Schicchi

Gianni Schicchi………………Robert Tucker
Lauretta…………………………Jessie Rosewarne
Zita………………………………..Grace Burt
Rinuccio…………………………LJ Crichton
Gheraldo………………………..Jeffrey Dick
Gheraldino……………………..Edward Usher
Nella………………………………Cheyney Biddlecombe
Betto di Signa………………….Morgan Andrew-King
Simone……………………………Samuel McKeever
Marco……………………………..Masunu Tuua
La Ciesca…………………………Nina Gurau
Maestro Spinelloccio (a doctor)………..Zane Berghuis
Ser Amantio di Nicolao (a lawyer)…….Matt Barris
Pinellino (a cobbler)………………………..Elian Pagalilawan
Guccio (a dyer)………………………………..Tomairangi  Henare
Buoso Donati…………………………………..Gabriel Wee

Director: Jon Hunter
Designer: Sean Coyle
Lighting: Glenn Ashworth
Costumes: Sarah Carswell

Conductor: Kenneth Young
The New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington,

Friday 19th July, 2019

(until Sunday, 21st July)

When Giacomo Puccini first penned his Il Trittico (Triptych), consisting of three short operas designed to fill a single evening (premiered as such in New York in December 1918), various considerations combined to elevate the third of these works, the rollickingly comic Gianni Schicchi, to pride of place in the public’s affections, leaving the other two, the violent, bloody Il Tabarro (The Cloak) and the somewhat sanctimonious Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica), to fend for themselves, often elsewhere and in isolation. It would certainly be a tall order to perform all three in a single evening, the time-frames alone creating a certain awkwardness (either with two intervals, or one very long first or second half!). Even then, resources would be fully stretched in terms of casting and of staging, leaving opera houses far more likely to opt for a “double” bill at the most, à la the famous verismo twins, “Cav” and “Pag”.  Of late, there’s been revived interest in going thus far towards Puccini’s original intentions (usually with “Schicchi” as the “drawcard” along with either of the other two).

Here, from Victoria University of Wellington’s Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music we had a classic pairing of tragedy (Suor Angelica) and comedy (Gianni Schicchi) whose contrasts, I thought, worked brilliantly, each to the other’s advantage. Partly I think  due to a welcome circumspection of presentation in both cases, here, neither work was made into a caricature of itself – Suor Angelica’s overtly Catholic ethos wore its religiosity lightly, as did the knockabout comedy of Gianni Schicchi maintain a stylishness that never descended into coarse buffoonery – and this deftness of touch on the part of Jon Hunter’s direction for the most part gave each story the theatricality it needed to work, the climax of Suor Angelica here giving rise to my only reservations in this regard, more of which below.

In keeping with the intimate nature of the performing venue and the corresponding space available, conductor, chorusmaster and musicologist Michael Vinten undertook the task of making a “reduction” of the composer’s orchestral scores which preserved the essential spirit and sound of the originals, and which, if not delivering as much “physical” impact as the full opera orchestra does in places (such as the climax of Suor Angelica), amply suggested a comparable kind of emotional impact. Of course the physical immediacy of the instrumental detailings coupled with the players’ confidence and elan throughout made for stunning orchestral results under conductor Ken Young’s inspirational leadership.

What a vehicle for soprano and mezzo voices is Suor Angelica! The leading role especially runs the gamut of emotion and “fills out” the character in such a short space of time – she goes from being “just another nun” at the opera’s beginning, to a figure of the utmost tragedy within minutes, as another character, one who proves to be her “nemesis”, turns up in the story and whose “hatchet job” on the hapless Angelica is remorseless. As Suor Angelica, Michaela Cadwgan poured herself into the role up to the brim, fearlessly attacking a vocal line which required her in places to push her voice to what seemed almost past its limits in places, readily conveying the character’s intensity and depth of sorrow. Her acting paid full regard to the added tension of maintaining her dignity and bearing as a member of a religious order, while expressing her tragedy of having had to give up what was her greatest worldly joy, her son, before discovering, through the agency of her “nemesis” that her son had actually died without her knowing – the anguish was all too palpable in places, while  in context making total emotional sense.

With her surely-felt dramatic instinct brought fully into play, Margaret Medlyn’s troubled but   still unforgiving Princess made the perfect foil for her unfortunate niece’s desperately-enacted sorrows. We were made to “feel” something of the subtext behind the character’s cruelty and remorseless response to Angelica – a “wicked-stepmother”-like figure but with complex demons of her own. Amongst the other nuns the voice of Jennifer Huckle  resonated steadily and sweetly as the Monitress, while  Olivia Stewart ‘s shining tones enlivened her entreaties to the sisters to observe the rays of sunlight setting the image of Our Lady glowing in the courtyard. All the voices contributed to an essential sense of the ensemble, their surety of “belonging” and contributing to that feeling contrasting all the more with Suor Angelica’s growing desperation to be reunited with her dead son.

Expertly though the production conveyed the ambivalence of the “cloistered” atmosphere with its security/imprisonment dichotomies, and the oppressive ambiences surrounding the visit of the Princess to her virtually incarcerated niece, its staging at the very end didn’t for me catch enough of the transcendence of the story’s climax – the dead boy’s sudden appearance, the “vision from heaven” which draws Angelica towards and up into a numinous web of acceptance and forgiveness. I wanted him to directly “materialise” from the  blinding light which flooded the stage, and be the unequovical focus of things just for a telling instant – but his entrance from the side didn’t for me sufficiently turn into any kind of front-on, fully-focused engagement, missing an overwhelming sense of “revelation” which the music (and the lighting) was doing its best to evoke. It certainly deserved, I felt, at that point,  a surer moment of consummation, which, up to then, had been most whole-heartedly prepared for by all concerned.

Confidence was restored after the interval by the beginning of the opera which followed – Gianni Schicchi – an amusing and ironic vignette involving a photograph of the Donati clan closest to the recently deceased (?) Buoso Donati “freeze-framing” the setting, one which then clicked immediately into the business of the story. This is one of opera’s greatest “ensemble” works, and the give-and-take between all of the “living” characters made for thoroughly convincing and characterful results. All kinds of voices and personalities were registered throughout the interactions, each one conveying its character’s attitude and intent in tandem with engaging physical presence.

Crucial to the action was the information quickly given us by a young man in the group of relatives, Rinuccio, who tells everybody he is in love with and wants to marry Lauretta, the daughter of the well-known “wheeler-and-dealer” Gianni Schicchi, a plan which scandalises his snobbish Aunt, Zita. We were treated to a splendidly open-hearted and ringing-voiced portrayal of the character by LJ Crichton, his tones warm, open and ardent, almost to the very top of his register. If the other voices in the group didn’t match such freedom and amplitude, each still carried sufficient weight and colour to tellingly advance the drama – and the physical interactions were most splendidly choreographed, photo opportunities included!

Of course the attitudes of the relatives to the “upstart Schicchi” change considerable when they find Buoso’s actual will and realise they have been disinherited, and that something needs to be done, quickly. Schicchi’s help is sought, but he is disinclined to help the Donatis when Zita refuses point-blank to allow Rinuccio to marry Lauretta “without a dowry” – which, of course, leads to the opera’s most famous single moment, the girl’s pleading with her father to help, or else she will throw herself into the river Arno (“O mio babbino caro”). Jessie Rosewarne’s direct, simply expressed plea as Lauretta (her singing very much on the trajectory of the dramatic action, rather than self-consciously proclaiming a “great opera moment”) does the trick and wins her father over to the cause, turning the story’s action on a fresh course.

As Schicchi, Robert Tucker rightly dominated the scenario from his first entry, holding everybody in thrall with the workings of his scheming mind, and even convincing us to suspend disbelief at the unlikelihood of the penalty of dismemberment and banishment from the city imposed on people who forge a will having any credence in the 1970s throughout the Western world. Like the “curse” in Verdi’s Rigoletto, this is the stumbling block for me in accepting any “modernising” of the opera’s action unaccountably beloved of present-day productions, however nonsensical the result! Still, here, everything went hilariously and hair-raisingly according to plan, with  both doctor and notary, along with witnesses, convinced that the disguised Schicchi was in fact “dear Buoso”, the deception then deliciously running away from the astonished relatives when Schicchi again turned the story around, proclaiming himself as the heir to the dead man’s house and most valuable assets! – pandemonium!

A great success, then, and an extraordinary achievement on the part of all concerned with both productions, powerfully evoking worlds as different as chalk from cheese! I’ve already mentioned conductor Ken Young’s surety of direction and the dazzling instrumental detailing by the players throughout both works, working hand-in-glove with the onstage action, and  positively oozing atmosphere in both scenarios, aided and abetted by the set, lighting and costumes. Its overall impact, to my mind, worked surely towards director Jon Hunter’s intention that the production express “the enduring power of music”, the raison d’etre of all opera here for all present to enjoy.

 

 

 

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