Rip the beating heart from Puccini's Il trittico and, surprisingly enough, you're still left with a very satisfying evening. The full triptych is long and cannot squeeze comfortably within the constraints of taking a production to sixteen venues over three months, so English Touring Opera sets aside Suor Angelica to pair the Grand Guignol grit of Il tabarro with comic masterpiece Gianni Schicchi. And a richly rewarding double bill they make, with effective stagings, originally seen in 2011, each from a different director. Tabarro suffers some flawed casting, but superb ensemble work enables Schicchi to hit the operatic bull's-eye.

Craig Smith (Michele) in <i>Il tabarro</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Craig Smith (Michele) in Il tabarro
© Richard Hubert Smith

Steam wheezes across Neil Irish's no-frills set for Il tabarro, evoking a grimy Parisian quayside, with a backdrop of rusting sheet metal studded with rivets. It's the perfect claustrophobic atmosphere for James Conway's staging of this dark, sweaty tale. Michele, the brooding bargemaster, and his much younger wife, Giorgetta, have drifted apart since the death of their baby. He suspects her of having an affair (she is, with the stevedore Luigi) and lights his pipe, inadvertently providing the signal for Luigi to furtively come aboard. Michele strangles him, forces him to confess his love with his dying breath, then drapes the body with his cloak (tabarro), unveiling it to Giorgetta's horror in the dramatic denouement.

Sarah-Jane Lewis (Giorgetta) and Charne Rochford (Luigi) in <i>Il tabarro</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Sarah-Jane Lewis (Giorgetta) and Charne Rochford (Luigi) in Il tabarro
© Richard Hubert Smith

The opera unfurls slowly, Puccini painting a Parisian soundscape which chugs and puffs and growls, even in Ettore Panizza's reduced orchestration, Michael Rosewell working wonders with ETO's orchestra. Conway establishes the mood and characters swiftly – the clumsy Tinca, the gruff Talpa, the tense Luigi – and directs a tight ship. The standout on opening night was Sarah-Jane Lewis, whose smoky soprano was just the right colour and scale for the Hackney Empire. Awkward top note apart, Lewis impressed with luscious tone and sensitive phrasing. Opposite her, Craig Smith's baritone sounded worn and hollow as Michele, his great monologue “Nulla, silenzio” going for little, while Charne Rochford's approach to Luigi was beefy but reckless; sure, he's a brawny character, but bull-in-a-china-shop vocalism cannot be healthy for a young singer. Nevertheless, the cast's dramatic commitment was never in doubt, building to its gruesome climax.

<i>Gianni Schicchi</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Gianni Schicchi
© Richard Hubert Smith

Another claustrophobic atmosphere is conveyed in Gianni Schicchi, but here it is via a deliberately cluttered, chaotic set as the Donati clan scrabbles about to locate the will of their recently deceased relative Buoso, fearing – correctly – that they've been disinherited. Despite setting it around the time of composition with candy-striped blazers and boaters, Liam Steel's humdinger of a production nods at Italian commedia dell'arte by having the squabbling Donatis made up with painted faces, arched eyebrows, and exaggerated lipstick. It works a treat, bringing each caricature vividly alive, particularly the grasping Zita of Clarissa Meek (also a fine Frugola in Tabarro).

<i>Gianni Schicchi</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Gianni Schicchi
© Richard Hubert Smith

Rinuccio's suggestion that Gianni Schicchi might find a loophole is met with disdain, but that doesn't deter him, especially as he's in love with Schicchi's daughter, Lauretta. By impersonating Buoso and dictating a new will, Schicchi does indeed save the day... but bequeaths the plum prizes to himself! Luciano Botelho was an ardent Rinuccio, although his tenor tightens uncomfortably on high notes. Galina Averina was a winsome Lauretta, charming in her “O mio babbino caro” as she winds her father round her little finger by threatening to throw herself into the River Arno. She also had a lot of fun adding her own comic touches up on the roof terrace, where Schicchi wisely dispatches her to feed the caged bird to avoid her being implicated as an accomplice.

Andrew Slater – a master of the suggestive glance to the audience – was a wily Schicchi, a touch gruff but a lovable rogue, abandoning Italian to deliver his spoken epilogue in English, contesting that although Dante consigned him to Hell for this misdemeanour, “the ends justify the means” when it unites two young lovers. For my money, Gianni Schicchi is the finest one-act operatic comedy out there and Steel's acute direction makes this a pitch-perfect production that should have you chuckling all the way home.