Fulham Opera’s 2012 season is, once again, one dedicated to Puccini and Wagner. Last year, the company brought to stage Puccini’s Suor Angelica – the long-unpopular middle opera of his Il trittico – and the opening work of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Das Rheingold. This season, St. John’s Church, Fulham, the company’s traditional venue, is hosting the last opera of Puccini’s triple bill, Gianni Schicchi, and the second of Wagner’s epic cycle, Die Walküre – two works that pose very different challenges for this ambitious independent opera group.

The witty comedy Gianni Schicchi, which opens Fulham Opera’s current season, has always been the most popular of Puccini’s three one-act operas which make up Il trittico. Composed to a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano based on a plot derived from Dante, it premiered at New York’s Met in December 1918, and was an instant success. Its inexhaustible comic verve and quick-paced rhythmic invention have kept it a favourite with audiences ever since. Schicchi is, after all, opera buffa at its best in its final, early-twentieth-century incarnation; as such, it provides a humorous spectacle for the eyes and ears of experts and lay music lovers alike.

In Fulham Opera’s current production, directed by Fiona Williams, the sparkling farce played out by Gianni Schicchi and the aristocratic family of the recently-deceased Buoso Donati is updated from 1299 Florence to 1960s London. So, at least, we understand from the programme notes. In the actual staging, the allusions to this 1960s setting are not always clear. A double bed, furnished with pink-orange sheets and a black-and-white floral eiderdown, occupies the centre of St. John’s Church, strategically positioned to hide the altar. All around it are objects – a couple of chairs, a small desk, a coat stand and a tiny bookcase – in often-incongruent styles (at times old-fashioned, at others present-day). Equally, the only costume which hints at the 1960s is Lauretta’s very girly pink-and-green outfit.

This lack of period detail might have been overlooked, had greater effort been made to convey the characters’ ‘types’. Schicchi is an opera deeply influenced by the commedia dell’arte: while it lacks ‘modern’, naturalistic characters, its parade of two-dimensional figures recall such stock characters as Harlequin, the Doctor, and Columbine. These roles are as limited in psychological characterisation as they are difficult to play, precisely because of their nature as overt caricatures. Perhaps the continuous invasion of the audience’s space by the singers didn’t help. Perhaps at times retaining the imaginary fourth wall would have helped the types emerge more fully.

Nonetheless, the opening night of Fulham Opera’s new production did provide moments of real musical pleasure. Lauretta’s well-known aria, ‘O mio babbino caro’ (in this performance translated, like the whole libretto, into English), was both touching and dramatically convincing from young soprano Jennie Witton. Alberto Sousa gave an excellent performance as Lauretta’s lover, Rinuccio, while baritone Robert Presley, in the title role, provided a lively dramatic presence as well as confident singing throughout. A special mention should also go to Rhonda Browne, for her ever-coherent, suitably caricature-like depiction of Zita. True, she may at times have stood out oddly in a group of less overtly-played caricatures; but this is exactly as it should have been. As the empty frames on the stage’s back wall remind us, in the absence of ‘content’, the frame – the comedic portrait – still remains.

***11