Il tabarro / Gianni Schicchi, Hackney Empire, London
Dialogues des Carmélites, Guildhall School of Music, London

Greedy relatives scramble to the finish in order to inherit in a Puccini comedy, while Poulenc's gift is pathos

Hot on the severed tail of Tobias Picker's Fantastic Mr Fox, English Touring Opera's spring programme continues with two-thirds of Il trittico.

Thick with late-summer heat and the industrial stench of the Seine, Il tabarro is Puccini's most pungently condensed one-act opera. This is verismo at its most Zola-esque: a tragedy of broken backs and hearts, rough wine and spent dreams. Song-sellers hawk their wares on the quay (quoting La bohème) and lovers idle by, but the stevedores' life has little romance. The work is tough, the money bad. Meanwhile, in bourgeois Tuscany, a dysfunctional family fights over the estate of an unlamented uncle, aided and outwitted by the eponymous hero of Gianni Schicchi.

Where director James Conway favours a slow burn for Il tabarro, taking his cue from the oily ebb and flow of Michael Rosewell's faultless reading of the score, Liam Steel's second half of the double bill is a knockabout explosion of sight gags. There is scant respect for the dead here, as the still-warm corpse of Buoso Donati is climbed over, propped up, and stuffed into the heavy Victorian cupboards of Neil Irish's set while Paula Sides' irresistible Lauretta snacks on peanuts and accidentally slays a songbird on the terrace upstairs. Music stands and briefcases fly in the frenzied hunt for a favourable will. Corporeal mime is Steel's model, the Donatis pitched as white-faced grotesques to Schicchi's derby-hatted trickster (Richard Mosley-Evans) and led by the terrifying Zita (Clarissa Meek). Think Weekend at Bernie's meets Mervyn Peake, with a glorious, tear-pricking burst of sentiment in "O mio babbino caro". Ensemble work doesn't get tighter than this, and the orchestra sounds divine.

Tabarro is a less bold production, though again the orchestral performance is outstanding. Conway holds Julie Unwin's Giorgetta and Charne Rochford's Luigi at a tense distance until that sad little waltz from the hurdy-gurdy, focusing instead on the tenderness of Frugola's love for her blind cat (Clarissa Meek again), and the impotent rage of drunken Tinca (Andrew Glover). Irish's reversible set is as plain here as it is detailed for Gianni Schicchi, and it is down to Guy Hoare to conjure the play of sunlight and moonlight on water. Though Luigi remains a B-movie hunk, the calcification of Giorgetta's marriage to Michele (Simon Thorpe) is sympathetically drawn. For her, an adulterous kiss is redemption from the misery of grieving for her dead child. For the twice-betrayed Michele, murder is the only adequate response. The singing is tough-minded, the drama believable.

With no Suor Angelica to make up Puccini's tryptych, I turned to Stephen Barlow's Guildhall School of Music production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Poulenc's guillotined virgins rarely move me as deeply as Puccini's unmarried mother, but the last time I saw this opera, I wept like a baby. This time, I took a hanky. Yet I left moved by just one image: Natalya Romaniw's martyred Blanche alone on an empty stage, her arms thrown wide in a gesture of ecstatic surrender. If only we'd had more of that empty stage, more of that purity. Barlow is exceptionally talented at producing an encapsulating image, but too much character development was lost to the shuffle of designer David Farley's sliding panels, fracturing each act into brittle pieces.

Under Clive Timms, the orchestra sounded unhappy, while normally vivacious singers were muted. It's hard to look other than demure or cross in a wimple, and it wasn't until Romaniw returned to Paris, disguised as a servant, that she fully engaged with Blanche's terror. Though Sophie Junker's sweet, innocent Soeur Constance registered well, Amy J Payne acted and sang her sisters off the stage as the ideologue Mère Marie. Payne has a distinctive voice, quirky and vital, and Janácek surely beckons. The choral singing was lovely: supple and clear as only young voices can be.

'Il tabarro'/'Gianni Schicchi', Cambridge Arts Theatre (01223 503333), 16-18 Mar, then touring

Next Week:

Claudia Pritchard hears tomorrow's opera stars in the Royal College of Music's Rodelinda

Classical Choice

Oliver Knussen conducts Claire Booth and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in music that includes his own 2006 work, Requiem – Songs for Sue, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, today. Rising stars Eleanor Dennis and Susanna Hurrell share the title role in Rodelinda for the London Handel Festival, Britten Theatre, London, from 14 Mar

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935