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