The Bryn Double - Rage and Revelry

Rachmaninov and Puccini
Grange Park Opera
Grange Park Opera

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Gianni Schicchi (Bryn Terfel) Lauretta (Pasquale Orchard) Credit: Marc Brenner
Gianni Schicchi Betto di Signa (Robert Winslade Anderson) Marco (Michel de Souza) Zita (Sara Fulgoni) Nella (Ailish Tynan) La Ciesca (Olivia Ray) Rinuccio (Luis Gomes) Simone (Matthew Brook) Gherardo (Jeff Lloyd Roberts) Credit: Marc Brenner
Aleko (Bryn Terfel) Credit: Marc Brenner
Aleko Credit: Marc Brenner

Bryn Terfel is a force to be reckoned as he takes the title roles in Grange Park's double bill: Rachmaninov’s tragic Aleko and Puccini’s comic Gianni Schicchi.

Not the usual pairing, but these two operas contrast well, and director Stephen Medcalf builds a nice bridge across the evening with the drama playing out on the same set. We start in a grungy punk squat, and after the interval the same split-level stage has become a luxurious Italian apartment.

Aleko is Rachmaninov’s first opera. It’s just an hour long, has a clear tragic narrative and the musical line coils around with mellifluous beauty. It seems an easily accessible tragedy, so why is it so rarely performed?

A band of Bohemians live together in a squat, bare, graffitied walls and beer bottles abound as they share their lives of love, friendship and freedom. Here the Bohemians have become punk outlaws—clad in leather motorcycle gear and sporting red-tipped Mohicans, they party and rejoice in their free-living. Into this scene cycles Aleko (Bryn Terfel), a man who has joined their group and fallen in love with one of the outlaws, Zemfira. He’s depicted as different from the outset—simply clad in black slacks and a black jacket, he broods where the others break free.

He’s an honour-bound man with a turbulent past, and the tale begins as his and Zemfira’s relationship frays. Aleko becomes increasingly possessive over Zemfira, who believes love should be free. Drawn to a young DJ who is heading up the party, you can feel the impending tragic end.

Somehow, Medcalf’s production struggles to project the power and passion of the story. Rachmaninov’s score doesn’t assist this—its appealing lyrical lines create a rather trancelike feel and there isn’t much change in pace. This, coupled with a stop-start libretto, might be the reason Aleko Is rarely seen.

Gianluca Marciano spins the web of Rachmaninov’s doom-laden score conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. Terfel excels—physically he seems tormented, caught in the current of Zemfira’s action, swimming uncontrollably to his inevitable homicides. Vocally, it’s a treat to hear Terfel in this role; he brings real beauty to the vocal line and then a great anguish in the cavatina. He is paired with a gutsy and defiant Ailish Tynan as Zemfira and the passionate Luis Gomes as her illicit lover.

Then it’s on to Puccini’s perfect gem of a comedy, Gianni Schicchi, which Medcalf delivers with maximum sparkle. Where Aleko was drawn-out and dark, we are flung into the bright and bubbly, and laughing from the first five minutes.

The Donati family have excellent comic timing, and their ensemble work is impeccable, switching from grieving to greedy. Many of the singers double from Aleko which brings some continuity to the evening.

Luis Gomes as Rinuccio the nephew really shines in his role—he is ardent and impassioned and able to use his powerful voice with abandon. He is paired with Pasquale Orchard as Lauretta, and the pair look and sound great together. She doesn’t disappoint with the famous "O Mio Babbino Caro". Into the polished Florentine family marches Bryn Terfel, clad in bright red motorcycle leathers, he enjoys his part as the uncouth outsider which the family needs. Terfel’s capacious vocal quality and larger-than-life performance is spot-on, revelling in his power to manipulate the situation. It's a joyful performance from the BBC orchestra, the sound bright and punchy between the indulgent romantic phrases.

Aleko proves an intriguing part of the evening and a wonderful chance to see this early Rachmaninov, but it is Puccini’s well-known and loved Gianni Schicchi, presented by an outstanding cast, which steals the show.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis

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