Nigel Jarrett finds connections in the post-lockdown return of Mid Wales Opera and a new production of a short but intense work by Puccini, Il tabarro.
Covid has bred undying hope of a return to a condition with the silliest of monikers: ‘new normal’. That it means ‘old normal’ (which in turn means ‘normal’) is not the least of the silliness. New normal is the state dreamt of – well, almost – by the characters in Puccini’s opera Il tabarro (The cloak), the first part of his trio of operas, Il trittico, premiered in 1918, the others being Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.
A new production of Il tabarro by Mid Wales Opera next month marks the return to its activity in public post-lockdown, and its 30th anniversary. The first night will be at Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon, on October 1, after which it tours to eleven other Welsh venues, ending on October 29 at Presteigne. That Brecon opening night will also be Theatr Brycheiniog’s emergence from pandemical stasis. It’s all happening.
If only it were happening for Il tabarro’s barge-dwellers and their dockers on the Seine, singing of past and future. Stevedore Talpa and his wife Frugola pine for the ‘new normal’ of a cottage in the country, ever out of reach; Luigi and Giorgetta crave in vain for the happiness of lovers impeded by the fact that one of them (Giorgetta) is married (to Michele). Giorgetta and Michele have to make do with forlorn hopes of a return to ‘old normal’: the settled life they enjoyed before the death of their child. The barge is supposed to be sailing to Rouen, but ruin intervenes.
At the time of Il trittico’s premiere in New York in December 1918, the world had only weeks before witnessed the official end of the Great War but was consumed by the Spanish ‘flu pandemic. All these connections will not be lost on Mid Wales Opera or Theatr Brycheiniog. MWO is a touring company, its destinations those towns and venues which rarely see performances of opera. It has turned reduction, accommodation, and transposition (not say transport) into an art. But it will be the very act of travelling from place to place, once – and perhaps ever a possibility – hitherto forbidden by Covid restrictions on movement and assembly.
The company’s 2021/2022 ‘Puccini in Paris’ season, of which Il tabarro is the start, will continue next Spring with a fully-staged version of La bohème, supported by the orchestra of Ensemble Cymru. The Il tabarro cast is mostly a Welsh contingent: Elin Pritchard (Giorgetta), Robyn Lyn Evans (Luigi), Stephanie Windsor Lewis (Frugola), Huw Ynyr (Tinca) and Emyr Wyn Jones (Talpa), as well as Philip Smith (Michele). The musicians are Laurence Kempton (violin), Alexandra Callanan (bassoon), Elfair Grug Dyer (harp), and Lyness (piano).
MWO artistic director Richard Studer told me he was eager to be on the move. “After 18 months of absence from theatres, the chance to perform live, to happily endure the ramshackle life on the road, even the reality of living out of a suitcase again is a prospect that thrills me. Our new production will be the first time I have directed and designed this opera, and now we are finally in production I am revelling in its beauty and complexity. Il tabarro, as with Puccini’s La bohème, is an opera full of emotional depth and musical colour, each capturing both the soul and stone of the city.”
Studer has translated Giuseppe Adami’s original libretto, and MWO musical director Jonathan Lyness has created a chamber version of the score for a quartet of musicians, which he has done expertly for other company productions, most recently Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, Puccini’s Tosca – and Mrs Peachum’s Guide to Love and Marriage, a Studer/Lyness bravura re-working of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Its production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, scheduled for last Spring, was an early casualty of the closing of theatres. Il tabarro lasts fifty minutes, so the second half will consist of musical items reflecting the Parisian theme, a format the company has adopted before where the pre-interval main work is relatively short.
David Wilson, Theatr Brycheiniog’s director, said: “The stage is finally set for our audiences to return. However, our priority is, and always has been the safety of our audiences and colleagues. Theatre is about creating a place where we can experience life in a new way. We know our audience members and visitors will help us create a space where together we can experience the pleasure of good company, the joy of dance, the passion of opera and the magic of family theatre.
“We know this is a big ask but it is for your and their safety that we ask you to be mindful of some new requirements and you will see us change some of the ways we do things. Some restrictions remain in place such as mask wearing, physical distancing, hand sanitiser use, track and trace protocols and a reduced capacity.”
The full touring itinerary for Il tabarro in October is:
Fri 1: Theatr Brycheiniog, Canal Wharf, Brecon LD3 7EW
Sat 2: Sparc Theatre, Bishops Castle SY9 5AY
Sat 9: Neuadd Dyfi, Aberdovey LL35 0NR
Tue 12: Congress Theatre, Cwmbran NP44 1PL
Thu 14: Pontio Arts Centre, Bangor University, Deiniol Rd, Bangor LL57 2TQ
Wed 20: The Courtyard, Hereford
Fri 22: Ludlow Assembly Rooms, 1 Mill St, Ludlow, Shropshire SY8 1AZ
Sat 23: Hafren promotion (venue tbc), nr. Newtown
Fri 29: St. Andrews Church, 20-3 Church St, Presteigne LD8 2BS
Nigel Jarrett is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor. He’s a former daily-newspaperman and a 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.
Header Image: Robyn Lyn Evans as Luigi – in Mid Wales Opera’s Il tabarro – Puccini