Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring famously caused a riot at its 1913 premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Demonstrations disrupted the performance, leading choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky to stand on a chair in the wings shouting out the numbers so the dancers, no longer able to hear the orchestra, could keep count. Giacomo Puccini attended the second night and pronounced the choreography “ridiculous” and the score “an absolute cacophony... it’s the work of a madman.” I wonder what Puccini would have thought of Opera North's decision to pair The Rite with his one-act comedy Gianni Schicchi.

Phoenix Dance Theatre in <i>The Rite of Spring</i> © Tristram Kenton
Phoenix Dance Theatre in The Rite of Spring
© Tristram Kenton

As far as double bills go, they're certainly an odd couple: The Rite in a new choreography by Jeanguy Saintus presented by contemporary dance company Phoenix Dance Theatre; Gianni Schiccci in a revival of Christopher Alden's satirical staging for Opera North. It's the first collaboration between the two Leeds-based companies and makes for an incredibly rewarding evening.

Saintus presents an unusual Rite in which there is no sacrifice, no Chosen One. He takes his inspiration from his Haitian background, particularly Haitian Vodou. A single spotlight narrows and widens against a black background. Eight dancers, initially dressed in gloves and simple white robes, invoke spirits. They collapse on stage, writhing and contorting their bodies, reaching their hands towards the light to scoop it up, bringing it to their mouths to imbibe. There are few lifts, although when one female is raised and then plunged into repeated dives by the four men it is reminiscent of MacMillan's Manon.

Vanessa Vince-Pang in <i>The Rite of Spring</i> © Tristram Kenton
Vanessa Vince-Pang in The Rite of Spring
© Tristram Kenton

It's not often that the eight dancers of Phoenix Dance Theatre will have the luxury of working with a live orchestra, feeling the music from the pit pulsating through their bodies. Garry Walker ramped up the decibels from the 60-strong band, woodwinds relishing their solos, particularly the grungy bass clarinet and the cloudy, priest-like intonations from the bassoon, reeking of the censer.

As the ritual proceeds, the robes change, becoming fuller with flashes of colour in the lining – different for each dancer – resembling birds of paradise displaying their plumage when they flick up their tails. One male is wrapped in a multi-coloured skirt as a state of ecstatic transcendence is reached. Urgent and spiritually charged, although not without moments where synchronicity slipped, Saintus' Rite is impressive, but when there is no human sacrifice, the stakes seem lower.

Richard Burkhard (Gianni Schicchi) © Tristram Kenton
Richard Burkhard (Gianni Schicchi)
© Tristram Kenton

There is a death, however, in Gianni Schicchi. Puccini's one-act opera is drawn on a tiny episode in Dante's Divine Comedy, a volume of which Diego Silva (Rinuccio) is reading in the silent preamble. Dante Alighieri himself stalks the stage before removing his scarlet robes to become Buoso Donati, throwing dramatic contortions that wouldn't have been out of place in The Rite as he enacts his death throes. In this, he is aided by Claire Pascoe's Ciesca, one of his grasping relatives waiting to get their hands on his fortune, who smothers him with a pillow.

Richard Burkhard (Gianni Schicchi) and Tim Claydon (Dante/Buoso Donati) © Tristram Kenton
Richard Burkhard (Gianni Schicchi) and Tim Claydon (Dante/Buoso Donati)
© Tristram Kenton

It sets off the madcap plot in which Richard Burkhard's Schicchi – a shady dealer in shades – is entreated to find a loophole in Buoso's will, the old man having left everything to the monastery. Assuming the guise of Buoso, he dictates a new will to the notary... bequeathing the plum items to “my devoted friend Gianni Schicchi”. One of those plums – Buoso's flea-bitten mule – is already dead, however, suspended above the stage. It's a riot of an opera, even more so here because Buoso is still very much alive. Alden has actor Tim Claydon peel off his nightgown to reveal a red imp who clambers the walls, gurning like a gargoyle, performing acrobatics on a bell-rope, causing further chaos.

<i>Gianni Schicchi</i> © Tristram Kenton
Gianni Schicchi
© Tristram Kenton

Walker keeps Puccini's engine room whirring in the pit, the orchestra running its own commentary on the action. An excellent ensemble cast keep the laughs coming. Aled Hall's lascivious Gherardo and Leah-Marian Jones' matriarchal Zita are the pick of the relatives, while Silva – a touch reedy – delivers an impassioned paean to Florence. Tereza Gevorgyan (last season's sparky Oscar in Ballo) has a touch of the sulky Goth teen about her Lauretta, although there's soprano sunshine in her hit number “O mio babbino caro” as she threatens to throw herself into the Arno if her dad won't help out. Burkhard is a brilliant Schicchi, firm-voiced, a lovable rogue even if – as he shrugs off in his spoken epilogue – Dante did consign him to hell for this deceit. I've a sneaking feeling Dante approved.

****1