Phoenix Dance Theatre and Opera North present their take on two classic works in a wonderful double bill of opera and ballet.
This is the first time that Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre have worked together on a main stage production – and what a collaboration it is. You can see two short, easy-to-follow works all in one night. The show starts with a new version of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of the most famous dance pieces of all time, followed by Opera North’s lauded version of Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s only outright comedy.
The Rite of Spring
The Rite of Spring caused huge controversy when it premiered because of Igor Stravinsky’s dissonant score and Vaslev Nijinsky’s radical choreography. But over 100 years later, the music is more familiar and the choreographer is entirely new. Acclaimed choreographer Jeanguy Saintus is making his UK debut with a hypnotic spin on this classic ballet. It’s inspired by Haitian initiation ceremonies which all eight of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s company dancers deliver with bold movements and compelling storytelling.
The performance is split into two parts, The Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice. However, Saintus gives us no physical sacrifice, instead we see the spiritual journey of the dancers – and it’s an incredible sight to behold. They give themselves up to the Haitian voodoo spirits, known as the Loa, through the ritual of positive prayers in the first part which becomes the celebration of their religious acceptance in the second.
It doesn’t have an elaborate set, just a stage and clever use of downward lighting that follows the dancers through their initiation. You can see the ritualistic theme in the movements of stage, as they switch from calm, angular steps to pulsating, convulsing bodies in a flash, drawing you in to their transcendent world. The impressive visuals are enhanced even further thanks to Yann Seabra’s costumes. Their clean, white gowns explode into life in the second part with bright, bold colours that confirm their commitment to the Loa.
The Rite of Spring is the perfect representation of the power of movement in sync with the flow of music. And the music plays a hugely important role as this is a rare chance to see Phoenix Dance Theatre backed by the 60-piece Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Garry Walker. The delicate instrumentation gives way to pounding rhythms and helps to set the scene for an enthralling 40 minutes that absolutely flies by.
After the interval, it’s time for an hour-long, rip-roaring dive into Gianni Schicchi. It’s based on an episode of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Christopher Alden’s opera opens in silence, inducing laughs from the get-go. You see Rinuccio reading from the book as dancer and trapeze artist Tim Claydon hilariously shuttles across the stage as Dante himself, before shedding his red robes and becoming the ailing Buoso Donati.
We’re soon joined by a motley crew of characters who make up Donati’s relatives – some family they are. They’re dressed up to the nines by costume designer Doey Luthi as they wait for Donati’s last breath, and when it doesn’t come La Ciesca hilariously takes matters into her own hands, straddling the poor fella and smothering him. After his death, they learn he’s left everything to the local friars, so they hatch a plan to get it back – enter Gianni Schicchi, the famous conman agrees to help so his daughter Lauretta can marry Rinuccio, Donati’s second cousin.
Richard Burkhard steals the show as the wonderfully cunning and endlessly charming Gianni. There’s a sense of evil genius about him as soon as he steps on the stage, with his baby blue suit jacket draped over his shoulders, but it’s in his facial expressions and gestures that you know there’s more to him than meets the eye. He impersonates Buoso Donati to help the family change the will, making sure each family member is given the part of the estate they want. Can you guess what happens next? He leaves it to ‘his dear, devoted friend – Gianni Schicchi’ and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, because that would reveal their own dastardly plans. And even though it’s the move of a villain, he isn’t one, you can’t help but wish him luck.
It’s sung in Italian, with English subtitles on the screen, so it’s easy to follow, and due to its hilarious nature, you never lose track of where you’re at. Puccini’s score is impressively played by the Orchestra of Opera North and includes one of the most famous arias of all time – ‘O min babbino caro’ is sung by the powerfully understated Tereza Gevorgyan, in the role of Lauretta. As she pleads with her father to be allowed to marry Rinuccio, the audience is treated to an incredible solo.
The set design adds another element to Gianni Schicchi. Charles Edwards has created a minimalistic, but multi-functional space, using a long white wall that moves up and down the stage to give the opera a sense of place, but it mostly takes place around a moving bed – nearly all of the characters end up in it at some point. He’s also added a few eye-catching props that help tell the story, from the mule that dangles from the ceiling to the aerial silk that Tim Claydon hangs from as he watches over the self-centred family.
The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi are two very different works. However, side-by-side, they fit, so whether you’re an opera lover, a dance fan or just fancy trying something different, this is well worth a go.
The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi come to Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 2nd March 2019. Prices start at just £15.