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Il tabarro/Gianni Schicchi, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire

English Touring Opera are on the road again, and as their Puccini double-bill demonstrates, are on top form. The curtain rises on a rusty, dusty, smoky quayside by the Seine, as the small orchestra does a fine imitation of a large one to evoke gently rocking boats and the palpitations of suppressed love. Thus does ‘Il tabarro’ – ‘the cloak’ – embark on its doom-laden course.

While the stevedores unload cargo, bargee Michele (Simon Thorpe) supervises with patriarchal authority, while his pretty young wife Giorgetta (Julie Unwin) parries the men’s banter as she gives them drink, giving furtive glances at one in particular. It’s all highly convincing, if a bit over-busy: the dramatic focus takes a while to home in on the brewing tragedy, but from the moment it locks onto its target we are held in appalled sympathy with all three protagonists.

Thorpe’s Michele is a transparently good man, his anguished outbursts expressed with rolling expressiveness; Unwin’s Giorgetta is finely sung and acted, while Charne Rochford’s Luigi evinces a driven torment which wrings the heart. The young lovers whose serene duet sounds out from a rooftop make the perfect foil to the emotionally-trapped figures below; Michael Rosewell’s orchestra teases out the allusive beauty in this exquisite score. James Conway’s direction gives the plot a seamless inexorability, and the murderous denouement is as spine-tingling as I have ever known it in this 50-minute masterpiece.

All gloom was then dispelled with an inventively designed and brilliantly directed ‘Gianni Schicchi’. Liam Steel gets his characters to move with an exaggeration which perfectly fits the farcical situation, beginning with a wonderful outpouring of fake mourning as the hopeful beneficiaries of rich-peasant Buoso’s will cluster competitively round his bed. The apparently-thwarted young lovers give vent to wild paroxyms of grief until the girl’s father Gianni Schicchi (Richard Mosley-Evans) takes control, and events begin to unfold with dizzy speed.

Every member of this large cast gives a virtuoso performance, as Schicchi first cons them into thinking he’s their saviour, and then – as he impersonates the dead man, dictating the will in his own family’s favour – becomes the unlikely king of the castle. Catch this show on its travels via Croydon, Cambridge, Exeter, Norwich, Durham, and Belfast.