Guest reviewer: Daniel Shipman
Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is known for having almost caused a riot at its Parisian premiere in 1913. It was such a drastic change from anything which had come before it that the more traditional members of the audience felt they were being mocked by the jarring dynamics, competing time structures and dissonant melodies of the ballet’s score. Over 100 years later, it is precisely these qualities which make The Rite of Spring such a draw.
This evening’s production, a joint effort between Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre is marvellous. Under the baton of Garry Walker, the orchestra sounds wonderful and brings Stravinsky’s score to life in glorious technicolor. It is at turns moving and dissonant, disturbing and triumphant. Most film music of the 20th century owes a huge debt to this piece.
The dancers are equally skilled, bringing Jeanguy Saintus’s new choreography to the stage with the chaotic energy that the piece demands. Designed by Yann Sabra, the costumes begin in monochrome and slowly give way to small bursts of colour, cleverly echoing the visuals of spring. This is not a spring of lambs and daffodils though. Stravinsky draws on pagan rituals of sacrifice which are also associated with the season to create something which is an altogether darker affair than the usual connotations of light and rebirth which the season has.
The ballet is paired here with Gianni Schicchi, a short operetta by Puccini which is a based on an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The paring of the two is an inspired choice. Created just a couple of years apart, the Puccini shows how much music sounded at the time, which helps to illustrate what a radical departure the orchestrations of The Rite of Spring truly were.
Puccini himself attended a performance of the first production of The Rite of Spring and declared it to be the work of a madman, but in hindsight, it has fared much better than Gianni Schicchi. This production is modern dress, with the implication that the themes of greed and love are timeless, although this is inconsistently applied which reduces the effect somewhat.
The real problem with Gianni Schicchi (aside from being placed after the superior work rather than before) is that the translations which appear on screens at either side of the stage are witless and only one level above having run the libretto through Google translate. This would be a problem anywhere but has an especially severe impact on the audience’s ability to enjoy the comedy here.
An uneven pairing then, but a thoroughly enlightening and enjoyable evening nonetheless. Both works serve as great entry points to their respective mediums, but Stravinsky’s ballet would be more likely to cultivate a new generation of fans than Puccini’s opera.
Opera North: The Rite of Spring/Gianni Schicchi will visit the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 16 March and the Theatre Royal, Nottingham on 22 March. Visit Opera North’s website for more information.