Watch out, opera stages of London and the world: you have a new star coming. His name is Haobin Wang, he’s a baritone from Sichuan province in China and in the title role of Gianni Schicchi last night at Royal Academy Opera, he gave a performance out of the very top drawer. His stage personality is magnetic, sparkling with wit and oozing charm, his Italian pronunciation and diction are excellent and his naturally warm voice grew in strength through the short opera to hit thrilling power levels that you just wouldn’t expect from a baritone of his age.

Haobin Wang (Gianni Schicchi) © Hana Zushi-Rhodes | Royal Academy of Music
Haobin Wang (Gianni Schicchi)
© Hana Zushi-Rhodes | Royal Academy of Music

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Royal Academy Opera omitted Il tabarro, the first leg of Il trittico, starting the evening gently with Puccini’s meticulous painting of everyday life in a convent that opens Suor Angelica. Under the watchful eyes of Peter Robinson, the orchestra was on particularly fine form: delicate and gentle as it follows the nuns through their rituals and their relationships with each other and the convent hierarchy. It’s a big ensemble piece with many notable parts: I was particularly struck by Kate Howden, who combined strength with sanctimonious viciousness in her portrayal of the Suora zelatrice, and Emily Vine as Suor Genovieffa, who didn’t get a huge amount to sing but took the chance to impress with attractive timbre and phrasing.

The core of Suor Angelica is the confrontation between Angelica and the Aunt Princess. Claire Barnett-Jones sang the Aunt well: her voice is clear and expressive, with a good mastery of the flow of Puccini’s vocal line, and there was plenty of character in the portrayal. She has a good level of strength in the voice across the whole range, but needed more in reserve to be able to lift the big moments out of their surroundings. Celine Forrest’s Angelica, I’m afraid, I found problematic. Her voice has a lot going for it – strength, expression, range, a nice creamy tone – but there was a slight delay in the onset of strong notes which gave the voice a slight pumping effect and played havoc with the legato that is so necessary for Puccini’s sweeping phrases.

<i>Suor Angelica</i> at RAM © Hana Zushi-Rhodes | Royal Academy of Music
Suor Angelica at RAM
© Hana Zushi-Rhodes | Royal Academy of Music

Overall, therefore, this was a well-directed, high quality ensemble performance of Suor Angelica, which didn’t quite hit the vocal heights to make it a great one. Gianni Schicchi, on the other hand, was one of those golden operatic experiences where everything comes together and show you what a masterpiece the work is.

William Kerley’s gaudy present day staging sparkled with invention, with even the various anachronisms being entertaining (the injunction to Lauretta to go out to the balcony to “feed the bird” being surtitled as “play Angry Birds”, while Rinuccio is clearly capturing all the events on his phone camera).  The cast clearly enjoyed his direction, with the highly choreographed stage movement executed crisply and with verve (in particular, Angharad Lyddon’s acting of Zita showed that she can do comedy well). The ensemble voices were all up to a high standard, with Tristan Hambleton’s Simone particularly prominent.

<i>Gianni Schicchi</i> at RAM © Hana Zushi-Rhodes | Royal Academy of Music
Gianni Schicchi at RAM
© Hana Zushi-Rhodes | Royal Academy of Music

But it was the orchestra and the main trio of voices that turned a competent performance into an outstanding one, with Robinson conjuring pace, humour, lilt and an almost jazzy feel from the orchestra to produce true joie de vivre. As Rinuccio, Oliver Johnston produced a voice that was pleasant and engaging, particularly smooth and strong in his upper register. The lows need a bit more power, which will presumably come in time. As Lauretta, Cathy-Di Zhang’s big moment is “O mio babbino caro”: it may not be the most technically challenging soprano aria in the repertoire, but it’s one of the most charming, and Zhang delivered it with grace and winning warmth.

At the end of the aria, as Lauretta snuggles persuasively up to her father, Wang delivered a slight shrug of the shoulders and a raised eyebrow, as if to say “well, what can you do after that”? After Zhang’s lovely singing, it brought the house down: just one example amongst many of Wang’s ability to draw every eye to him.

Done to this standard, Gianni Schicchi turns into a fabulous piece of operatic entertainment. Hats off to Royal Academy Opera.

****1