Opera North bring two complimentary operas by Puccini to Edinburgh, as part of their ‘Season of Secrets’. The first, about ship workers in Paris, explores a heart wrenching story of dissatisfaction and adultery. The second, equally tragic and highly contrasting in setting, follows a nun in a convent who has been ostracised by her family of royalty.
The performances were splendid with no noticeable weaknesses. The small mixed gender cast of Il tabarro portrayed the downtrodden working class characters with a perfect amount of grit. The second opera followed beautifully, with the all-female cast, all but the Princess playing nuns, providing a gentleness to follow the previous drama. The singing is, as expected, delightful and the orchestra does an amazing job, adding various harbour sound effects in the first piece.
The operas are performed in their original Italian but with English subtitles on screens each side of the stage, allowing for full understanding of the plot but detracting significantly from the intensity of the action. They also reveal to non-Italian speakers that some of the conversations sung with such power and emotion are rather mundane, if you didn’t know you probably wouldn’t guess that they were discussing their cat…. It would not be surprising if serious opera fans found the translations reductive and unnecessary but there is clear benefit to them in terms of making the performance more accessible. They could perhaps have been in a slightly nicer font though.
The set designs for both pieces are striking and minimalist with a distinct lack of colour. Il tabarro’s has the Festival Theatre’s vast stage filled with the harsh structure of an open shipping container and little else but a few boxes and sets of metal stairs. Action takes place on, in and around the open box which divides the stage in a particularly satisfying manner and allows for poignant use of different levels. The usage of upstage is limited, a shame as the few times shadowy figures walk across the back of the stage the set and lighting aid it so well. The colour scheme is all greys and perfectly captures the hopelessness of the performance. For Suor Angelica colours become softer and everything has an ochre tone. Another singular set piece dominates, the outside wall of the convent with windows revealing rows of wooden chairs. The wall moves from its original diagonal position to horizontal and the windows close, shutting off those left onstage. The lack of colour in both pieces gives the occasional brighter shades a jarring effect, such as the reveal of the Princess, Angelica’s aunt, in a harsh yellow suit.
The main downfall of the production is that the lighting for both pieces manages to go from elegant and subtle to incredibly ham-fisted for the ending. For Il tabarro, throughout the dim lights, perfectly emphasised the dark set and the lighting changed to show the time of day. Then at the climax of the action the excessive lighting choices take a very tasteful rendition of an easily over-done tragedy, and overdo it. Suor Angelica is also wonderfully lit for the most part. Features that stand out are the use of shadows, including a large laced crucifix on the floor in certain scenes, and candles carried by the nuns create a soft and delicate light at one of the most sensitive points in the performance. However, for the ending the use of projections does not allow for any delicacy, instead more likely to induce laughter at the images of space as the lead strips and walks into the abyss. Why the tech designer was allowed to take over the ending is hard to understand, the simple image of a candle flickering out, which did happen but was easily lost in all the projection drama, would have much more gracefully paid homage to Anne Sophie Duprels touching performance as Angelica.
Despite issues with the conclusions of both pieces, the overall quality and the way the two compliment one another make these operas well worth seeing, and although it won’t appeal to everyone this performance certainly has a wider reach than just the traditional opera crowd. So, if you are interested in an innovative take on opera which is still faithful to the tone of the work and delivers exceptional quality in music, Opera North is a great place to start.