Running true to form, Lyric Opera presented a double-bill of comic masterpieces seldom performed in Melbourne as its first offering for 2015. Although Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi has the occasional airing, the staging of Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole is a rarity. Again, it is up to shoestring companies to bring unaccountably neglected works to Melbourne audiences.
Nicholas Cannon and co-director Jane Millet have concocted an imaginative night of fun and frolics with a bunch of talented performers. From the outset, the fourth wall was decidedly breached. As the audience entered, singers and musicians wandered around the stage talking to each other and greeting friends in the audience. This was the beginning of a series of interchanges where the audience was invited to become a part of the action for both operas. Conductor Pat Miller encouraged people to keep their phones on (on silent, of course) so that enthusiastic comments could be shared electronically with friends. Social media certainly has its uses and the creative team decided to capitalize on them. We were even invited to take a selfie with The Mule.
With the musicians placed in the centre of the action, the stage became congested at times, but this was used to enhance the comic exchanges between performers and added to the general hilarity. The busy chaos of opera buffa was deftly managed by the singers and musicians alike.
One effect of the tiny budget for this company is generally a paring down of the orchestration for their chosen operas. Pat Miller has managed to capture much of the essence of these scores by devising sensitive and respectful arrangements in addition to employing skilled musicians. In the case of L’heure Espagnole, clarinet, double-bass and a line up of percussion and assorted keyboards was not so very far removed from Ravel’s instrumentation, which makes extensive use of percussion. These forces were perhaps less well suited to Puccini’s score, but were effective nevertheless.
The cast of singers appeared to relish their roles, making the most of comic opportunities. There were some truly hilarious moments from some of the cast, with expert timing and a well-judged sense of just how far over the top the comedy should go. As well as possessing an exceptionally fine baritone voice, Shoumendu Ganguly was hysterically funny as Don Inigo Gomez, one of Concepcion’s ridiculous suitors in L’heure Espagnole. He even impressed in a smaller role in Gianni Schicchi, his paunch ascending to a machismo pigeon pout.
The other comic standout was Nigel Huckle as Gonzalve, Concepcion’s prospective lover. Although the plot revolves around her attempts to find romantic moments alone with him while her husband is away regulating the town’s clocks, he turns out to be less than satisfactory. As a creature more obsessed with his own flights of poetic fancy than stolen moments of intimacy, Huckle was totally convincing. The succession of sudden changes, when inspiration struck, was sharply delineated and increasingly hilarious. While his vocal production betrays his background in musical theatre in the United States, his pleasing voice was extremely well controlled (with some beautiful falsetto notes) and his diction exemplary. He is outstanding performer whose flair for comedy could not have been predicted from seeing him in a dramatic role in Harvey Milk last month.
Katrina Waters made a vivacious Concepcion, her strong mezzo-soprano rising smoothly to the high notes without losing warmth or beauty. As the mule driver, Ramiro, whose clock-moving biceps and greater appreciation of feminine charms eventually win the lady, tenor Raphael Wong impressed with a lovely vocal quality and some spirited acting. Tenor Daniel Sinfield was a lively Torqumada in the Ravel and Gherado in the Puccini, his bright tenor well projected in both operas.
There was some fine singing by the ensemble for Gianni Schicchi with Kerrie Bolton perhaps taking the honours with her characterful portrayal of Zita. Her experience as a singer and actor was plain to see in her assured performance. Rebecca Rashleigh made a delightful, sweet-voiced Lauretta – a conspicuous example of the way Lyric Opera aims to promote talented young singers. Nicholas Renfree-Marks made an ardent and amusing Rinuccio. He has an attractive tenor voice, but greater confidence was needed to really nail the top notes. As the scheming Gianni Schicchi, James Payne sang robustly and handled much of the stage business confidently.
Anybody looking for a brilliantly entertaining night at the opera would be hard pressed to find anything to fit the bill more satisfactorily than Lyric Opera’s terrific production of these two comic gems.
Heather Leviston reviewed Lyric Opera of Melbourne’s production of L’heure Espagnole and Gianni Schicchi at Chapel off Chapel on March 12, 2015. The season runs until March 19. Details and bookings http://www.lyricopera.com.au/