At his second Puccini opera opening night in a week – following Welsh National Opera’s new version of Madama Butterfly – Nigel Jarrett was at Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon, to see Mid Wales Opera unveil its version of Il tabarro (The Cloak).
Puccini’s mini-opera Il tabarro is based in Paris but it’s not so much ‘Gay Paree’ as ‘Grey Paree’. Even in the context of impending opera dénouements it’s almost unrelievedly bleak. Any light is brief, flickering and metaphoric as the characters remember or hope for better times while heading for the kind of catastrophe that only opera can bring about at a guillotine-like stroke. In the reduction-for-touring version by Mid Wales Opera it comes across as even more claustrophobic. The orchestra is miniaturised as a quartet – violin, harp, bassoon and piano/keyboard – and the set is perfunctory, with three back flats depicting dockside ropes and the riveted innards of the Eiffel Tower. The rope is not just an emblem of barge life on the Seine, where this story of brute existence on a rollercoaster to disaster is set, but the means by which a love triangle is itself reduced by strangulation to two unhappy characters – five if you include their probably inconsolable friends. Bridget Wallbank’s lighting is minimal, asserted only to suggest the surface revisions of the water.
MWO skilfully re-shapes large-scale opera into a manageable form and not just for ease of transport (major companies also tour and with full-blown productions). The purpose of MWO’s travels is to visit smaller venues in Wales where opera cannot be staged in grand form and where the locals rarely get to see it anyway. Such necessary shrinkage is an art as well as an agent of loss. The losses, usually of superfluous scenes and characters and musical breadth, can be borne unless you are a purist, in which case you probably wouldn’t be attending a curtailed production anyway. Cut from MWO’s production by director and designer Richard Studer are three additional minor characters: a songster (Un venditore di canzonette) and two lovers (Due amanti). They might have turned that light up for a moment but their absence in terms of the narrative boulder racing to do its worst is no great forfeit. In any case, the music of excised characters can be incorporated among the surviving cast. The numerical reduction of the orchestra is more of an issue – here the quartet is on stage with the cast, not in the ‘pit’ – but it’s an exercise in equivalence: spare dramaturgy, spare musical resources. MWO always takes pains to get that balance right.
But what the cast assembled for such a reduction cannot do successfully is miniaturise its singing, especially in terms of volume reduction. Philip Smith (Michele), Elin Pritchard (Giorgetta), Robyn Lyn Evans (Luigi), Stephanie Windsor-Lewis (La Frugola), Emyr Wyn Jones (Talpa), and Huw Ynyr (Tinca) comprise a lusty sextet, and they relish their opportunities. Giorgetta is not the only character on the dock whose internal complications – she likes the ministering of her husband, Michele, but prefers ‘rough handling’ to his ‘dull silence’ – require clear enunciation in Studer’s English translation of Giuseppe Adami’s libretto. For Giorgetta, Luigi is clearly the source of rough handling, if only they can get into position.
Clear articulation is particularly important in a production which appears to have no visible environment except the micro-dockside and its moored barge. (It would also be a salute to the excellent translation itself.) At times, the singers appear to be projecting earnestly into a void which just isn’t there and the function of operatic narrative to keep the story going, to relate it and be heard, until the principals stop and reflect threatens to become a casualty. The caveat to this business of having to strain after the words is that it’s widespread in music-theatre and needs to be addressed. That said, the inter-actions onstage in this production are ultra-convincing. Giorgetta’s and Luigi’s duet in which he confesses that his love is so strong he cannot bear to be near her is followed by his aria of devotion in extremis, sung by Evans with almost excruciating ardour. Smith, in Michele’s pain and jealous torment, sings resignedly with a warm and evenly-pitched baritone, as though nothing can dislodge his fate. Pritchard smoulders as a woman divided between domestic drudgery and the need for sex. In their various inter-connections, particularly those affecting hope, nostalgia and present travail, Puccini’s characters in Studer’s version are the perfect examples of individuals thrown together by a hard life and making the best – or the worst – of it.
Music director Jonathan Lyness’s reductions of operatic scores are miracles of jewelled compression. In Il tabarro, by default, he has drawn Puccini’s score of its manipulative tendencies and is rewarded with exquisite playing from Laurence Kempton (violin), Alexandra Callanan (bassoon) and Elfair Grug (harp), with himself at the piano.
At around fifty minutes, Il tabarro doesn’t detain an audience for long. It’s the first of Puccini’s 1918 trio of short operas, Il trittico. So MWO’s habit on these occasions is to furnish a post-interval second half with something lighter. Once out of Jill Rolfe’s authentic bargee costumes for the opera, the company finally bounces on to the stage in modern dress – the men looking like a team about to deliver Milk Trays with surreptitious and over-dramatic intent – to reflect a Paree that is more Gay than Grey. Not that Steph Windsor-Lewis’s opening La Vie en Rose is emptied of Piaf-like pathos. It came complete with her accordion accompaniment, reminding us of the organ-grinder who appears on the dock at the start of the opera’s full version but is omitted from this. Permutations of singers and instrumentalists continued with Elin Pritchard singing Satie’s Je te Veux accompanied by Elfair Grug (harp) and Laurence Kempton (violin); Cole Porter’s I Love Paris (Robyn Lyn Evans with Emyr Wyn Jones, Huw Ynyr and Philip Smith, accompanied by full quartet including Alexandra Callanan); Debussy’s Nuit d’Étoiles (Ynyr with Grug); Chausson’s Le Colibri (Jones, Jonathan Lyness); Trenet’s Coin de Rue (Smith, quartet plus the accordion of Windsor-Lewis); Puccini’s Parigi (Evans, quartet); Donald Swann’s Je suis Le Tenebreux (Ynyr, Lyness); Reynaldo Hahn’s L’Heure Exquise (Pritchard, Lyness); Trenet’s La Mer and Jerry Herman’s The Best of Times, from La Cage aux Folles (full company, with quartet and accordion).
Mid Wales Opera continues to do sterling work in creating nights at the opera both for those who love it but can’t get to it and those who can get to it and can’t get enough of it. The company’s brand of high professionalism is not to be reduced.
Remaining itinerary for Il tabarro: Theatr Colwyn, Colwyn Bay (Oct 6); Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff (Oct 8); Neuadd Dyfi, Aberdovey (Oct 9); Congress Theatre, Cwmbran (Oct 12); Pontio Arts Centre, Bangor (Oct 14); Holroyd Theatre, Oswestry – Hafren Satellite Stages (Oct 19); The Courtyard, Hereford (Oct 20); Ludlow Assembly Rooms (Oct 22); Trefeglwys Memorial Theatre, Hafren Satellite Stages (Oct 23); Aberystwyth Arts Centre (Oct 27); St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne (Oct 29).
Nigel Jarrett is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review, a former daily-newspaperman and double prizewinner: the Rhys Davies award for short fiction and the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first collection of stories, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian, and the Times. He is also the author of a poetry collection, a novel, and two other story collections. His work is included in the two-volume anthology of 20th– and 21st-century Welsh short fiction. He lives in Monmouthshire.