If programming Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve is rare enough, pairing it with Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi even rarer. Yet both centre on deception and the class divide, one as tragedy, the other as comedy. The State Opera of South Australia has mounted both in the fine acoustics of Adelaide Town Hall, sharing the stage with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, with Nicholas Cannon directing La Vida and Douglas McNicol Schicchi. Both have sung extensively with State Opera, but this was the first time either had directed for the company. Both showed creativity and imagination.

La vida breve is a simple story with Spanish flavour from de Falla. A gypsy girl falls for a youth of status and wealth, who fails to tell her he is about to marry (or be forced to marry) a girl ‘de su clase’. Early in the opera she sings that if he were to abandon her she would die of sorrow. When he does, so does she. Finis.

The orchestra, commencing with foreboding and dread, and masterfully guided by Brian Castles-Onion signalled that there was not going to be a happy ending to the story. A bench and beautiful tenored Beau Sandford, as the ‘voice of the forge’, with broom in hand suggested the yard of the gypsies’ house. He was joined by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Campbell, the gypsy grandmother, prophetically telling of a poor little bird about to die. They left the audience in no doubt we were going to experience a delightful night of singing. And so it transpired. This production, aided by the sensitive, expressive rendition of the orchestra, was able to bring out the pathos and drama of the music, the exquisite Spanish atmosphere as Andalusian strains were introduced, the crashing drama as Paco the two-timing lover departed, plus the gentle intermezzo and the rousing flamenco with the colourful dancing of Tomas Arroquero, Areti Boyaci and Hayley Kollevris.

Gisele Blanchard’s Salud, the love-stricken gypsy girl, was outstanding. Her expressive singing and remarkable acting conveyed first her thrill and excitement of the love she felt for Paco, then the despair and delusion in his utter rejection as she dies of a broken heart to conclude the story. Brenton Spiteri was outstandingly impressive as Paco, convincing as the cad of a lover. Bass Pelham Andrews brought reality to Sarvaour, the uncle, and baritone Jeremy Tatchell sang impressively as Manuel, the brother.

Gianni Schicchi delivered much needed light relief. Director Douglas McNicol also played the title role magnificently. His cleverly crafted cast and props seemed to merge the action with the orchestra. Many of the cast were paralleling similar roles to those they had sung in the earlier opera – a clever twist – and an opportunity to demonstrate their great comic ability – I have never heard a Gianni Schicchi audience laugh so often or so loudly. As the family of deceased Donati gathered, gleeful and greedy for the benefits they expect from his estate, they must first find his will. Young Ghererdino, who had become Gherardina, was unfazed by it all, taking selfies of herself with the dead body, only enticed away by the lure of a finger spinner.

Matriarch Zita, a commanding Elizabeth Campbell, gave an undeserved dignitas to this motley crew of relatives. Brenton Spiteri, her nephew Rinuccio, was again magnificent. His impressive paean to the richness of Florence, “Firenze è come un albergo fiorito”, was outstanding. His girlfriend’s father, Gianni Schicchi, wearing hard hat and iridescent jacket and carrying a plumber’s plunger, definitely not of the same social standing as the Donatis, was called to solve the dilemma of the disinheriting will. McNicol made the role his own, persuaded to help by his daughter Lauretta, sung powerfully and sweetly by Desiree Frahn – her “O mio babbino caro” while standing commanding on a table, ending with hands outstretched to her father, leading to them tenderly hugging each other was so moving.

When Zita had pronounced she would not give her nephew to a girl with no dowry she unwittingly determined the outcome of the opera. With the body of Buoso shoved safely under the bed, and assisted by the relatives, Schicchi was called on to dictate a new will. This he dramatically did, leaving the richest picking to himself, thus ensuring he had the needed dowry for his daughter – at the risk of damning himself to hell.

Two classy, contrasting performances in one night.