The Miserly Knight, Gianni Schicchi, Glyndebourne
Capital tales of money lust
Tuesday 06 July 2004
"Greed is good", said the oleaginous Gordon Gekko in the movie
Wall Street. He'd have enjoyed Glyndebourne's latest offering. The wonder is that no one has brought these two operas together before. Rachmaninov's
The Miserly Knight and Puccini's
Gianni Schicchi are quite simply flip sides of the same coin, and when you've a director of Annabel Arden's perception and ingenuity flipping it, the interest far exceeds the capital.
"Greed is good", said the oleaginous Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. He'd have enjoyed Glyndebourne's latest offering. The wonder is that no one has brought these two operas together before. Rachmaninov's The Miserly Knight and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi are quite simply flip sides of the same coin, and when you've a director of Annabel Arden's perception and ingenuity flipping it, the interest far exceeds the capital.
The Rachmaninov (after Pushkin) is, of course, the real rarity. Some have called it an opera-symphony, but while it's true that it is richly, assertively orchestra-led, no one should doubt its theatricality. Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic unlocked the brooding prelude with portentous power; that the voices in the first instance were instrumental was neither here nor there. The drama had begun.
Arden knew that better than anybody and she harnessed all her theatrical nous in a stunning opening. The miserly Baron sleeps. The principal characters in his life are illuminated in the darkness, like thought-bubbles in a dream. But then, directly above his bed, a spidery form twists and writhes ecstatically as the music climaxes in a shower of glinting coins raining down on the Baron. Wow. Who needs voices?
It soon becomes apparent that this figure (the brilliant aerialist Matilda Leyser) is an embodiment of the Baron's greed, with him always, crouching in dark corners, climbing the walls like Spiderman. Watchful, lustful. Pushkin understands well that it's the money itself - the power it enshrines not the things it buys - that devours the Baron. As he descends into his cellar to commune with it, Arden and her set designer, Vicki Mortimer, have windows opening in the gloom to emit a golden light, like magic casements to the Baron's deepest desires: "I rule," he thunders.
Glyndebourne features the magnificent Sergei Leiferkus in the role, and it is he who finally takes this rather thrilling symphonic fantasy into the realms of true opera. Like a cross between Fagin, Iago and King Lear, he uses the text like his own divine retribution - all rasping consonants and serpentine sibilance. His is an unfair advantage, of course (the role was written as a vehicle for the great Fyodor Chaliapin), but that's not to diminish the achievement. And his support is sterling: Viacheslav Voynarovskiy as the Moneylender; Albert Schagidullin, briefly, as the Duke and Richard Berkeley-Steele as the Baron's son, Albert.
And then - ingeniously - the flip-side of Mortimer's set becomes the flip-side of the evening: Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. But Arden doesn't reveal the lighter, brighter humoresque straight away. The steely set still lowers as the relatives arrive, en masse and in a feeding frenzy, at the home of the deceased Buoso Donati to squabble over his wealth.
The great thing about Puccini's frisky little masterpiece is the concertante manner of its ensemble, the way in which this gallery of greedy, hypocritical grotesques play off each other and, more importantly, the man who comes to play, or should I say prey, off them - Schicchi himself. It helps to have a real Italian in that role and Alessandro Corbelli was just what the doctor ordered.
But really this was a triumph of ensemble directing and playing, wonderfully moved, wickedly observed, sharp, focused and funny. All of a piece. Even the hit number - "O mio babbino caro", deliciously sung with gorgeous covered tone and persuasive portamento by Sally Matthews - was moved graciously along so as not to sound (as it can) like a separate event.
An inspired evening, then. Morality turned topsy-turvy. As Felicity Palmer's haughty Zito spits the word "Ladro!" ("Thief") at Schicchi, her righteous indignation is such as to make even us forget that her cousin's corpse is still in the cupboard where she and the family left it not half an hour ago. As Gekko said, greed is good. For a laugh.
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