Having received their premieres in New York in 1918, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi are part of Puccini’s Il trittico, a triptych of one-act operas. They have been given a refreshing and altogether modern lift in the production at RNCM Concert Hall, Manchester. While remaining true to the originals, modesty, taste and rustic elegance have brought these works to new life in the conservatoire’s theatre. 

Setting the scene was the simplest of backdrops: a stoop to the left and one to the right of an effigy of the Virgin Mary, both atmospherically lit from above. After the distant bells of a convent rang, a celestial choir of nuns entered. Costumes were simple and befitting of the sacred nature of the scene. The clarity of diction, intonation and enunciation of the chorus was extremely impressive, and they were consistently good throughout the whole opera. 

Linda Richardson (Suor Angelica) and ensemble in <i>Suor Angelica</i> © Robert Workman
Linda Richardson (Suor Angelica) and ensemble in Suor Angelica
© Robert Workman

The leading role in this tragic tale was taken by Linda Richardson. Singing the title role admirably, her warm voice stood out from the students performing alongside her, but contrasted and complemented them nicely. Her voice had all the necessary qualities needed to bring out the full range of emotions in her character. Molly Barker, a RNCM postgrad, sang the part of La Zia Principessa. Her voice, rich in colour and exceptionally dark in the lower tessitura, was ideally suited. As well as a fine singer, she was a persuasive actress playing the part with flawless execution and a determined focus. Other principal characters included Rhiannon Doogan as La Badessa and Georgia Mae Ellis as La Suora Zelatrice, who both sang with impeccable diction and precise intonation. 

Linda Richardson (Suor Angelica) and Molly Barker (La Zia Principessa) in <i>Suor Angelica</i> © Robert Workman
Linda Richardson (Suor Angelica) and Molly Barker (La Zia Principessa) in Suor Angelica
© Robert Workman

The parlour scene was excellent, with convincing acting from both Richardson and Barker. The mood of the scene was enhanced by the warm, sympathetic lighting and there was an exceptional change of mood and orchestral colour as the chorus re-entered after the departure of the Zia Principessa. In the final scene, Suor Angelica was centre stage as she concocted a potion to seal her fate. Props were kept to a minimum and the lighting focused all attention on the action. Richardson was marginally less convincing here and didn’t project as well, which was the only downside to this entire performance. Her son appeared, and the ending was handled with simplicity and restraint. From behind a veiled curtain, a wall, similar to the facade of a great gothic cathedral, came alive. The addition of male voices in this final chorus enhanced the emotional impact of this moving conclusion. 

Gianni Schicchi was simply set as well, with 1950s-style costumes. The real strength of this opera was in the acting and in the ensemble's singing, which was exacting and balanced, the voices complementing each other with clean diction and controlled vibrato. The acting was assured and captivating, resulting in an engaging performance filled with excitement and comedy. 

Quentin Hayes, cast as Gianni Schicchi, played the role convincingly and sang with a sense of authority. Barker appeared again, showing versatility here as Zita. She was without doubt the strongest actress in this formidable cast, shining through especially in the centre of the action, reading Buoso’s will. The aria "O mio babbino caro", sang by Caroline Taylor as Lauretta, was performed with simple sincerity – a refreshing change from the cloying nature in which it’s often heard. Rinuccio was sung by Michael Gibson, and his tenor voice was light and lyrical, with a beauty of tone, When singing from the front of the stage his voice carried well, but on occasions, when more at the back, he was overwhelmed by the orchestral sound. Yara Zeitoun captured the fickle nature of Nella accurately and her soprano voice blended effortlessly into the ensemble numbers. John Ieuan Jones’ Betto had resonance and warmth. 

Molly Barker (Zita) and Quentin Hayes (Gianni Schicchi) in <i>Gianni Schicchi</i> © Robert Workman
Molly Barker (Zita) and Quentin Hayes (Gianni Schicchi) in Gianni Schicchi
© Robert Workman

Throughout both operas, there was freshness, vividness and spontaneity from the singers. Costumes and sets were superbly designed by Nicolai Hart-Hansen, their simplicity enhancing their effectiveness. Sympathetic atmospheric lighting design from Ian Somerville showed creativity, enhancing the excellent on-stage action from director Robert Chevara. The line between students and professionals was indistinguishable: there was nothing about these performances that would indicate that the majority of the cast were students. The RNCM Opera Ensemble, again drawn from the student body, despite having the very occasional blemish, showed professionalism and played musically following the baton of conductor Martin André with precision.

****1