La Vida Breve/Gianni Schicchi

de Falla (music), Fernandez Shaw (libretto); Puccini (music), Forzano (libretto)
Opera North
The Lowry

La Vida Breve

Some years ago, there was a TV commercial satirising the process of contract negotiations for a young footballer.

The humour lay in the fact that the club was so desperate to sign the player, they would accede to his contract-rider requests no matter how bizarre and extravagant. Thus, having asked for and been granted a Ferrari and a boat, the excited young man then demanded a ‘Ferrari boat’. The joke being that, even knowing there is no such thing, the desperate manager promises to get one, as long as the player signs for his club.

Tonight, enduring La Vida Breve and half-enjoying Gianni Schicchi, I find myself wondering if Opera North’s management team are like that football manager, with director Christopher Alden as the star player to whom they dare not say no. After all, Alden has had no less a cultural icon than Germaine Greer sing his praises, so he must be good; better than good, right?

And if Alden tells you La Vida Breve needs a subplot in which a feisty yet put-upon transsexual is beaten to death by co-workers, who are we to say no? If the heartbroken Salud, having fought off an attempted rape by her wealthy young seducer and been shunned by her uncle, decides to self-inflict the death of a thousand cuts (not just witnessed but actively aided by her coworkers), once again, who are we to say no? And if the flamenco wedding singer metamorphoses into a stilted hybrid of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Dean Stockwell’s powdered crooner in Blue Velvet, well, we’d best just nod that through as well.

It is not the radical element in Alden’s productions that creates problems (bravo to radical), it is his bare-faced determination to create Christopher Alden’s La Vida Breve and treat the original as almost an inconvenience. No regard is shown either for the work of Manuel de Falla and librettist Carlos Fernandez Shaw or for the spirit underlying the work. The result is confused, over-stuffed and meretricious.

And yet it all starts with such promise. Johan Engels's set is a run-down factory where women labour to produce wedding dresses for the rich, as the men sit idly whilst lamenting ‘endless toil is our fate’. The opening, thanks to Adam Silverman’s bold strip fluorescent lighting, is literally dazzling. We have a tangible sense of place and class.

Key members of the cast embrace Alden’s vision without reserve. Daniel Norman deserves credit for creating a dignified, defiant transsexual character, without a hint of caricature. Elizabeth Sikora sings the role of grandmother splendidly and Anne Sophie Duprels puts heart and soul into Salud, the woman too much in love with the spoilt rich kid.

If only someone had told the director ‘thus far but no further’. If only someone had said 'no'. No to the failed rape (followed by manual self-relief); no to the brutal murder; no to the grizzly, prolonged suicide; in fact, no to anything which rides roughshod over the intent of Fernandez Shaw’s story and de Falla’s musical expression of it. Alden, not content with the Ferrari and the boat, wants more.

It’s a relief that Christopher Alden's Gianni Schicchi is much less of a blood-soaked pig’s ear (though the sight of a dead donkey—a model—hanging from the ceiling at curtain-up does not reassure).

Buoso Donati dies comically enough (with belated help from a “loving” cousin). Whilst his (not quite last) will and testament causes the havoc he intended (a kind of two fingers from beyond the grave to malicious, venal relatives), in this production, his spirit lingers in the background (occasionally the foreground) watching over with disgruntlement, dismay and, finally, delight as Gianni Schicchi, the low-born upstart, alters the content but fulfils the purpose of the will.

Christopher Purves wins the audience’s acclaim as the smart, scheming Schicchi who, in saving some of the inheritance for the wicked relatives, also feathers his own nest and, more importantly, secures his beloved daughter, Lauretta’s, happiness. Purves brings energy, poise, comic timing and a fine voice to the role.

As a production, this is far less irritating that La Vida Breve. There is humour here but not enough warmth. Emotional truths are sacrificed for the sake of an eye-catching image.

For instance, Gianni’s supplication before his daughter during “O mio babbino caro”, tells only half the story. His genuflection looks good, but father and child remain physically isolated throughout this crucial dramatic moment. Perhaps this is at the heart of Alden’s failings as a director—too often his choices feel like they belong in the visual arts rather than the dramatic ones.

Then again, what do I know? Germaine loves him, so maybe he deserves the Ferrari boat after all?

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson

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