At a time when Melbourne’s theatres are darkened, performances of the past couple of weeks have been all the more valuable. Fortunately, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music just managed to escape the “social distancing” strictures with four performances of a Puccini Double Bill featuring perennial favorites, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.
In an operatic world where male roles outnumber female roles and singers come in the opposite proportion, one of the many attractions of these two operas is the preponderance of female roles. Being set in a convent, the cast of Suor Angelica is almost exclusively female while Gianni Schicchi includes several important female roles and perhaps the most famous of all soprano arias: “O mio babbino caro”. In the past, MCM have solved the gender balance dilemma with a brilliant production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, and Britten’s Albert Herring, where a large number of female singers were accommodated successfully. Furthermore, all of these are operas in which a strong sense of ensemble plays a vital role, thereby providing valuable experience for emerging professional singers.
The inventive staging of the two earlier MCM productions, however, were lacking in this double bill. Word had quickly spread that the Poulenc and Britten operas were a must see for opera lovers to the point where it was almost impossible to secure a seat for the final performances. Despite the aptness of Abbotsford Convent for the Poulenc, its hall required considerable creative ingenuity in staging and direction to generate the stunning emotional impact that will remain with members of the audience for a long time. The Coopers Malthouse Beckett Theatre is specifically designed for theatrical performance but was put to comparatively pedestrian use. Certainly, having the nuns singing as a group from the upper balcony at the beginning of the opera created an effect that even Hildegard of Bingen might have approved given the full-bodied blend of devout voices, but the staging and a number of incongruities tended to weaken the overall effect.
The search for a glimpse of La Zia Principessa’s carriage was patently nonsensical, but of greater importance was the role of the son for which Angelica had been condemned to life in a convent seven years previously. Suor Angelica has been the subject of much thoughtful analysis. Commentators point to Puccini’s choice of 15 days after Easter as the context for Angelica’s suicide as she seeks to be reunited with her illegitimate son. Andrew Sinclair’s direction appeared to underplay a parallel between Mary’s loss of her son and Angelica’s (and a consequent possibility of redemption from the mortal sin of suicide); instead, greater emphasis was placed on the cruelty of Angelica’s aunt, and her determination to persuade Angelica to sign away her property rights so that a favourable marriage could be made for her sister despite Angelica’s sinful disgrace. By having Angelica’s son appear on stage in the background before their meeting at the convent, the emphasis is placed on the treachery of the aunt. Her obvious lie that he had died two years ago seemed to undermine the possibility of redemption suggested by the parallel deaths. Nevertheless, the presentation of Angelica’s little garden of (usually) healing herbs and flowers and elements of cloistered life evoked a sense of place and purpose.
Teresa Ingrilli met the challenges of the title role with distinction. Her talents as an actress capable of a moving portrayal of a nun under extreme duress had been amply demonstrated in the role of Sister Blanche in Poulenc’s opera. Although she gave a convincing performance in the very different role of Albert Herring’s mum, it is her capacity for unaffected emotional involvement that is unusually compelling and endearing. A talented singer’s progress is always interesting, and it was exciting to hear the development of a beautiful sheen towards the top of Ingrilli’s range. It was a passionate performance with some impressive singing from this young soprano.
Among other solid performances from the nuns, Shania Eliassen made a particularly strong impression as Suor Genoveffa. Her pleasing light soprano was used effectively in her animated portrayal of the nun’s irrepressible yearning for her life as a shepherdess with the joy of caring for the lambs.
Mentor singers Heather Fletcher as La Zia Principessa and bass Conal Coad as Simone in Gianni Schicchi provided both a contrast to the younger singers and a secure anchor for some of the drama. Fletcher’s firm mezzo-soprano and dramatic intensity made her a formidable presence – a well nigh impossible force for Angelica to withstand. Coad’s full, rich tone was a benchmark for the younger singers – something to aim for. As the eponymous Gianni Schicchi, Darcy Carroll showed that he is heading in the right direction. Although the title role is best suited to a more mature singer, given a strong voice and the requisite acting skills, the role benefits most from a singer with an exuberant personality. Confident and relaxed, Carroll entered into the comic spirit of the opera with gusto, his attractive, well-projected baritone ascending to entertaining heights as he impersonated the late, hypocritically-lamented Buoso Donati. His bleating reminder of what the assembled relatives had to lose (their hands) if they complained about the way he tried to change Donati’s will in his own favour was skilfully done.
Other members of the Gianni Schicchi cast played more central roles than they had in Suor Angelica, notably Olivia Federow-Yemm, who, like Carroll, has performed as a soloist with Victorian Opera. Their experience showed. Following her serene, serious Mistress of the Novices she donned a totally different persona (and costume) for a frenetically avaricious Zita, cousin of the rich Donati. Her vivacity, self-assurance and appealing mezzo-soprano voice combined to make her a reliable focus of activity.
The directorial choice of modern dress and an overly exaggerated acting style were sometimes at odds with certain elements of the opera. Puccini provides a counterpoint to the surrounding nonsense and mayhem in the role of Lauretta, Schicchi’s daughter. There is genuine mutual affection between Lauretta and her father and between Lauretta and love interest, Rinuccio. Sophie Bisset is a promising young soprano with a vivacious personality and Ben Glover’s’s tenor has an appealing youthful clarity; they made an attractive young couple. But when “O mio babbino caro” acquires an edge of parody, a listener could be forgiven for feeling uneasy.
There was no discomfort regarding the quality of the 18-strong orchestra placed at the side of the stage. Although the convent bells at the beginning of the evening should have been off stage, details such as these were immaterial considering the high standard of the playing. The participation of experienced musicians such as Caleb Wong – producing a swoon-worthy cello solo – and Jasper Ly on oboe, plus a sprinkling of alumni, it could hardly be rated a student orchestra. Richard Davis, Chief Conductor and Head of Orchestral Studies at MCM, drew exceptionally fine, disciplined playing from this band of gifted musicians, ensuring effective coordination between instrumentalists and singers.
This double bill was an ambitious undertaking, especially for the singers in leading roles, but the end result was a rewarding display of young musical talent honing their skills on melodious works of operatic genius.
Image:Teresa Ingrilli as Suor Angelica (left), Olivia Federow Yemm (centre background), Shania Eliassen (right). Photo credit Gregory Lorenzutti.
Heather Leviston reviewed Puccini Double Bill presented by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at The Coopers Malthouse, Beckett Theatre on Friday 13, 2020.