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Review: State Opera’s La Vida Breve & Gianni Schicchi


The rare double bill of Spanish opera La Vida Breve and Puccini’s popular Gianni Schicchi delivers an enriching night’s entertainment that balances tragedy and comedy, sensitivity and irony, writes Greg Elliott.

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Staging Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve (The Brief Life) and Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi allows audiences to experience both the dramatic and comic styles of opera.

It also provides an opportunity to showcase the skills of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the animated expressiveness of conductor Brian Castles-Onion, the cleverness of directors Nicholas Cannon and Douglas McNicol, and the qualities of a marvellous cast.

La Vida Breve has a distinctive Spanish flavour with its inclusion of flamenco dancing and symphonic flourishes while telling the tale of Salud, who is desperately in love with Paco, who also declares his love for her but then goes on to marry Carmela.

The ASO and seated chorus leave only a small strip of stage for the singers but the story is well told and dramatically performed so that we are captivated throughout the compelling tale.

Gisele Blanchard’s powerful performance of Salud evokes empathy for her ordeal, while Brenton Spiteri is equally charismatic and forceful as Paco, who chooses (or is forced to choose) Carmela, a woman from a wealthier family.

Gisele Blanchard and Brenton Spiteri in La Vida Breve. Photo: Bernard Hull

Beau Sandford establishes the tone of the drama, as The Voice of the Forge (and what a voice he has), with a sincerity and humble presence as a representative blacksmith commenting on the plight of the poor, especially in the lyrics, “Cursed is the man who is born an anvil instead of a hammer”.

Andrew Turner, as Cantaor and looking like a dangerous Spanish underworld figure, sings an incredibly difficult piece of music to the bride and groom, accompanied by a rousing chorus. Guitar player Werner Neumann and the flamenco dancers capture the essence and passion of Spain in a musical high point of the opera.  Elizabeth Campbell, as the grandmother, is dignified and understanding in her compassion for Salud’s predicament.

In contrast, Douglas McNicol’s Gianni Schicchi has the audience laughing about death from the opening images.

An old man, Buoso Donati, is on his deathbed and his grieving family are gathered around him: fond reminiscences are shared until the will is read, revealing that his fortune is to be inherited by a local monastery.

Joshua Rowe is excellent as Simone, the eldest of the family, and Spiteri is fiery as Rinuccio, who hopes to marry the daughter Lauretta.

As director, McNicol brings every moment of comedy to the surface. He is also terrific in the title role of Gianni Schicchi, complete with modern tradies’ uniform. His baritone voice booms with laughter as he outwits a family which is in bereavement – but more for their loss of inheritance than their loss of a loved one.

“Who thought when he died that we would weep sincerely” is just one of the wonderful lines reflecting the fractious and divisive nature of money and material goods when people are supposed to be mourning.

Desiree Frahn sings sensitively and exquisitely the well-recognised aria “O mio babbino caro”, to a rapturous applause. Schicchi’s scheme to alter Buosto’s will is fully supported by the family and the unravelling of his scheme leads to more and more laughs.

Musically, conductor, Brian Castles-Onion finds every playful moment but equally has the orchestra delivering poignant highlights.

State Opera’s La Vida Breve / Gianni Schicchi is an excellent night of opera with its balance of tragedy and comedy, solo stars and quality ensemble, sensitivity and irony. It is an enriching night because of the diversity of the experience and the proficiency of the players.

State Opera SA will present the final performance of La Vida Breve / Gianni Schicchi at the Adelaide Town Hall tonight.

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