Thumbnail image credit: Bernard Hull
First, a quick admission—I’ve never seen an opera in my life. I’ve never even had the impulse to go and see one. I’ve listened to a few choice selections, mostly Maria Callas, but it has never crossed my mind to actually go to the opera. Last night I had the rare chance to attend the State Opera of South Australia’s dual production of Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve and Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and on this showing alone, it was enough to turn a novice into a fan.
The pairing of these two is interesting, as it’s immediately apparent that they both belong to two different genres, tragedy and comedy. La Vida Breve, directed by Nicholas Cannon, practically reverberates with the sheer misery at its centre. Giséle Blanchard is wonderful, expressive and powerful in her performance and her voice. The wedding scene at the top of Act II, and the accompanying Spanish-inspired dance, were highlights of this piece, as the orchestra swelled and swept the audience up into the pulsing blood-red heart of this pantomime-esque opera. This is their feature moment, and they rise to the occasion wonderfully, lead by conductor Brian Castles-Onion. The chorus, cast and dancers work together effortlessly to work the audience into a frenzy, and it is a true delight. There seems to be an inconsistency with costuming in this opera, however, as period costumes are mixed with 50s style dresses—but this is a small concern in an otherwise immaculate performance.
Gianni Schicchi does not suffer from similar inconsistencies; in fact, it is faultless, from start to finish. Directed by Douglas McNicol (who also performs the title role), Gianni Schicchi is a true standout. Originally composed by Puccini, it struck me as a “beginners opera”—everything you need to understand the form is there, including one of his most recognisable arias, O mio babbino caro, sung exquisitely by Desiree Frahn. The comedy is perfectly timed, and the cast worked seamlessly with each other to make each moment sing.
What struck me most was how both operas confounded my expectations of what opera is. I did not expect such a rich vein of comedy to run through each piece, for instance—and I was surprised and delighted when the audience playfully booed actor Brenton Spiteri (the young lover in both pieces, and an immaculate performer). This level of audience interaction dashed away all of my preconceptions of how audiences could appreciate opera, and left me curious to attend State Opera SA’s next performance—brava!