Opera North is in Edinburgh this week, for which opera fans are very grateful, as we don’t get enough opera in Scotland. Scottish Opera only give us around five fully staged operas a year, although they do of course tour some smaller scale productions. So Opera North are welcome on their visit, giving us three operatic productions over four days. The company has a very good reputation for its high artistic and musical standards, and their recent Ring Cycle was acclaimed as a triumph.
The two operas in their Puccini double bill, Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, are very different in their character and music. The American critic and musicologist Joseph Kerman, called Puccini’s most famous opera Tosca, ‘a shabby little shocker’. However, Tosca is grand opera compared to the visceral social realism of Il Tabarro: it is indeed the epitome of verismo opera.
The plot is a simple one of love, jealousy and murder, set on board a barge. This is created on stage by a container, but with the use of clever lighting, it creates the required atmosphere of menace. The singing and acting is of a high standard throughout: Giselle Allen (Giorgetta), is very convincing as the unfaithful wife; her husband Michele (Ivan Inverardi), is menacing in every way; and her lover Luigi, is ably sung by David Butt Philip. Overall, this is a superb production worthy of five stars, and makes one wonder why Il Tabarro isn’t seen more often, while Tosca, Butterfly and Boheme are staged endlessly.
The second opera of the evening, Suor Angelica, is a rare operatic phenomenon: an all female cast. This is Puccini’s version of what we know today as the Magadalen Laundries, the story of unmarried mothers who were taken into convents, really as a form of punishment, although ostensibly to find God.
In contrast to the darkness of the set of Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica has a light, uniform greyness, both for the set and for the costumes of the nuns: no colour and little joy, other than the love of God! The music is also much less dramatic than that of Il Tabarro, and not as well sung overall. The exception is the colourfully dressed evil princess, sung superbly by Irish mezzo-soprano (although here, sounding more like a contralto) Patricia Bardon: she truly is an international star.
Anne-Sophie Duprels sings Sister Angelica very sweetly, but sadly the other cast members merge into the greyness of the set, that is until the final scene. Here, Sister Angelica having taken her life after learning of her sons death, slips out of her habit and walks naked towards heaven, which is represented by a shining star, like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although a colourful climax, this conclusion is rather jarring after the greyness of the set.
Both operas are very ably conducted by Anthony Kraus, and the Opera North Orchestra are excellent. If tonight is anything to go by, Opera North’s Billy Budd, which is the other operatic offering they bring to Scotland (and which has been widely praised), should be well worth seeing.