The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi at Opera North


Hello, I’m talking about performances at Opera North again, I hope you’re not too surprised.

This night at the opera, however, was a little different, and that was mainly because half of it was in fact a ballet. Now, I’m really not an expert on ballet to the point where this was actually the first one I’d ever seen, but I thought I’d share with you my perspectives on both performances that formed a double bill on opening night last Saturday (16th Feb 2019).

Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring

Over time, many great works get reimagined, re-staged or even re-discovered. In this performance, the Orchestra of Opera North performed the groundbreaking score, and Phoenix Dance Theatre under the brand-new choreography of Jeanguy Saintus performed on stage. I was in a bit of an odd position in that I knew the music rather well, but none of Nijinsky’s original choreography. I was open-minded to what I was about to see, but knew what I expected to hear.

It’s fair to say that I was utterly spellbound throughout the performance. The music was played to perfection and the choreography was by turns exciting, energising and brutal. I could see elements of story developing, but mostly the shapes and visuals created by the performers on stage were an absolutely wonderful visual rendition of the music I was hearing.

Having now watched a recording of the ‘original’ choreography, I can see that this might pose a problem for some. Arguably the original ‘Rite’ was put together in complete collaboration between music and dance, the score being specifically created to suit the vision of the dance, and the dance being specifically created to suit the vision of the music. Now that one of those aspects has been completely changed, there are undoubtedly moments where the choreography is more of an interpretation of the music rather than quite as symbiotic with it. Perhaps parts of the dance didn’t mirror the score as intricately as might be expected (and maybe some moments did this even better) - but as far as I was concerned, that which did happen had its own artistic merit. For someone with no prior knowledge of choreography, I’m happy for Saintus’ to be my definitive.

Such incredible intensity was maintained throughout, and with some beautiful ideas to boot. Saintus has described his work as reflecting the Vodou religion, and has said that if you aren’t familiar with the religion, you would just see dance. I think knowing this beforehand was quite helpful for me and added to the experience. It’s a shame, then, that Opera North’s programmes only detailed the scenario as if it was still ‘Pictures of Pagan Russia’ rather than Saintus’ new scenario. It would have been good to have a brief description from him about what was happening, as Stravinsky’s subtitles for each section didn’t always correlate.

There were some great moments though, which successfully portrayed the growth of spirit, solidarity and inclusion while also giving great energy and some truly tense, uncomfortable moments too. While this performance was perhaps more evocative than narrative, that’s just exactly what I thought made it so special and exciting. It was a true celebration of some truly remarkable music and ideas, and incredibly well done too.

Puccini - Gianni Schicchi

After the interval we were treated to Puccini’s only comic opera. I didn’t know much about it at all before going in, and frankly I’d bought the ticket for the Rite of Spring and was viewing this as a bonus. But what a fantastic experience it was, arguably topping the excellence of the first half!

Puccini’s music really highlights the devilish nature of what we are witnessing, but in such a way that a very specific brand of dry, witty and wicked humour emerges. For a production of any opera to accurately portray something so specific would mean that its set design, direction and performance would have to be totally in-tune with the exact vibe of the score and libretto. This performance did exactly that. Opera North debuted this production only 4 years ago (which I didn’t see) and yet its return alongside The Rite of Spring seems oddly apt. Many characters dance around a chosen target around the time of their death, and there’s an uncomfortable sense of animalistic ritual about them gathering around an old man’s death bed (just to see what they can get out of his will). Even the music sometimes ventures into the same soundworld.

This production also displayed some fantastic fourth-wall breaking, with set-pieces looking like they were going to fall off the stage and into the pit, an old man waking up from the dead and literally doing acrobatics around the stage and some moments directly addressed to the audience. When the curtain rose, all we saw was an upside-down donkey and a pretty blank wall, but once the characters populated the stage this opera was as visually stunning as any other. There was a lot going on, but every movement by every performer was so carefully thought-out and choreographed. There were also some beautiful moments where things were thrown around stage to create a really fantastic visual treat. It felt modern, absurd and wicked - everything it should have done.

My only small gripe was that the orchestra sometimes drowned out solo singers, especially in the opera’s most famous aria ‘O mio babbino caro’. It’s interesting to note though, in moments like this, that some singers really excel at projection and diction, while others seem to fade into the background. I don’t fully understand why this would be, but the difference is sometimes really striking.

Overall, this really had me smiling at the end, it was devilish but hilarious and enjoyable in every way. It sort of reminded me of ‘The Good Place’ in its touching but absurdly funny tone (an obscure reference perhaps, but I think it’s accurate). It also made a fantastic ‘second course’ to The Rite of Spring, which might seem a bit unlikely, but I promise you that once you’ve experienced both you’ll get the same satisfied feeling that I did!

Benjamin JacksonComment