Il Tabarro / Gianni Schicchi - English Touring Opera - Hackney Empire, 4 March 2011
A date in E8 may not sound like touring to most, but it does bring in a completely different crowd from Covent Garden. Last year's ETO dates at the Linbury Studio were packed with regular operagoers, but a lot of the Hackney Empire audience were exactly the same people you see at the panto.
The Royal Opera House do love to waffle on about Linbury productions bringing in a new audience, but as far as I can see, they don't. Most of them sell out to ROH Friends, and even if they don't, who wants to travel halfway across town and pay a small fortune to see something they might not even like? If you want to reach new audiences with opera, you have to bring the opera to the audience, not the other way round. English Touring Opera prove this time and again.
They've scored a winner with this double bill, one of three productions being taken around the country (from Truro to Perth) this spring.
Under the baton of Michael Rosewell, the orchestra played wonderfully, switching easily from the sweeping drama of Il tabarro to the stop-start comedy of Gianni Schicchi. Both operas are played straight in traditional-looking productions that make it easy to follow the story. Detailed sets and well-rehearsed action suggest there's been more money and time available than in previous years. Casts are well-chosen (not as easy as it sounds when each principal covers a role in the other half of the bill), and Liam Steel, director of Gianni Schicchi and movement director of Il tabarro, choreographs them expertly. I've generally enjoyed ETO productions in the past anyway, but this year they really seem to have stepped up a notch.
Sepia tones and riveted panels evoke the claustrophobic drudgery of life on a Paris barge in James Conway's Il tabarro. You can almost feel the cold morning fog rising off the water. The illicit affair between Giorgetta and Luigi is more desperate than passionate. Julie Unwin and Charne Rochford make up in ardour what they lack in sheer vocal size, though with a cut-down orchestra this is not a great problem anyway. Simon Thorpe's Michele was a brooding, threatening presence.
Gianni Schicchi is played as a frantic farce in a set that looks like the back room of a Hackney junk shop. Liam Steel is minutely attentive to text, and with his dance/movement background every word of the libretto is suitably physicalised - I noticed details that had never struck me before. If ENO are still intent on using directors without an opera background, the world of physical theatre would be a better place to look than the movies.
Only Rinuccio and Lauretta escape grotesque caricature; the ghastly family are plastered in wonky lipstick and improbable moustaches. Paula Sides makes a excellent job of O mio babbino caro and Ashley Catling (Rinuccio) shows a strong light tenor. But the opera's called Gianni Schicchi and the affable Richard Mosley-Evans runs the show.