Glasgow has become a city determined to brighten up long cold January nights with musical sparkle. At venues throughout the city the Celtic Connections Festival is in full swing and at RCS, two sharply comic masterwork miniatures launch its opera season with lashings of energy and wit. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias are both packed with fun yet come with underlying seriousness as they each break the fourth wall, making direct appeals to us on the other side of the orchestra pit. An inspired creative team gave the many performers a stunning canvas contrasting commedia dell’arte traditions with a dazzlingly bright pastel coloured riot of zany surrealism.

Arthur Bruce (Gianni Schicchi) © Royal Conservatoire of Scotland | Robbie McFadzean
Arthur Bruce (Gianni Schicchi)
© Royal Conservatoire of Scotland | Robbie McFadzean

Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi was performed as if by a travelling troupe of players arriving in a dusty Italian provincial town. As we took our seats, the cast unpacked their props, plundered the costume hamper and screwed in the footlight bulbs, creating the shuttered Florentine house where family members were gathered round to witness the passing of the wealthy Buoso Donati. Each hope for part of the inheritance, but when Buoso’s nephew Rinuccio finds the will, it appears that the considerable fortune has been left to the monks. To the disgust of his class-ridden family, Rinuccio has his heart set on marrying Lauretta, daughter of a newcomer to Florence – Gianni Schicchi, a well-known schemer, but a man who just might be able to help. Both are summoned, family greed and arguments rage so Schicchi threatens to leave the squabble but is stopped by Lauretta who sings the showstopping “O mio babbino caro”, prompting Schicchi to devise a devious solution while rescuing love’s possibilities.

With most of the cast onstage throughout, the success of the piece relies on the ensemble, getting the many Puccini fast moving fragments across while applying split-second stagecraft. Director James Bonas and choreographer Ewan Jones provided much comedy in a busy dynamic plot, concealing Schicchi from the visiting doctor and handling the hiatus when his trick is revealed, leaving the family with little, and Schicchi with much. It's an ensemble opera, but Arthur Bruce was an entertaining Schicchi, Seumus Begg a powerful Rinuccio, singing his Italianate heart out to Florence, and soprano Stephanie Stanway luminous, lit in a golden sunbeam by antique mirrors in her big aria.

Catrin Woodruff (Thérèse) © Royal Conservatoire of Scotland | Robbie McFadzean
Catrin Woodruff (Thérèse)
© Royal Conservatoire of Scotland | Robbie McFadzean

Guillaume Apollinaire, founder of the term surrealism, was part of the Paris artistic community in the early 1900s, writing his absurdist play Les Mamelles de Tirésias in 1917 while recovering from a shrapnel wound. He died a year later in the great influenza plague, but the performance was seen by a young Francis Poulenc who adapted it into a short madcap opéra bouffe in 1947. Designer Tom Paris clearly had enormous fun populating his white set with a series of instantly amusing giant colourful images of animals and lipstick, with bean cans, an oversized milk carton and a stuffed blue macaw among the startling array of props. In this surreal world, a huge white dog puffs on a Magritte pipe, and a stage-high cat has golden fish swimming in front of its nose.

A serious prologue gave us fair warning, and a standout performance from baritone Mark Nathan who implored us earnestly to heed the lessons of war and repopulate the country. The tale is of Thérèse freeing her breasts to become Tirésias, liberating her of the burden of marriage to her weak husband who responds by donning her clothes and deciding to bear thousands of children on his own. Soprano Catrin Woodruff and tenor Alex Bevan gave supremely assured performances in the challenging roles as the topsy-turvy couple. Gamblers Monsieur Lacouf and Monsieur Presto arrive, duel with fish and shoot each other dead, Seumus Begg and Rhys Thomas in lurid single colour suits and ties revelling in the absurdity. A randy Gendarme with designs on the fecund husband was manfully sung by Oskar McCarthy in a bright green suit. The principals certainly threw themselves into the work, but the chorus in their stylish square shifts took it by storm, with tight direction, fluid movement and superb lighting from Rob Casey, a credit to chorus master and head of opera Philip White.

<i>Les Mamelles de Tirésias</i> © Royal Conservatoire of Scotland | Robbie McFadzean
Les Mamelles de Tirésias
© Royal Conservatoire of Scotland | Robbie McFadzean

Matthew Kofi Waldren conducted a lively orchestra, the students taking the tricky pacing and balance in the Puccini in their stride. I have only seen the two-piano version by Britten of the Poulenc, so the full orchestration was a revelation with its lush harmonies (premonition of Carmélites), sweeping phrases and many vignettes including a polka for the gamblers and a waltz for Thérèse.

Performers, players and the large team of back stagers gave us a stylish and highly amusing evening while learning their craft, a perfect antidote to those January blues.

****1