Opera Hong Kong’s Puccini double-bill, 25-26 Aug.

Sammy Chien (in chair) as Gianni Schicchi Sammy Chien (in chair) as Gianni Schicchi

When one transports an opera set in 13th-century Florence to early 20th-century Shanghai, as Opera Hong Kong did for the comic opera half of this weekend’s double bill of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, one can expect some textual inconsistencies. Puccini’s only outing in opera buffa tells a story hinted at in Dante’s Inferno: of an out-of-towner who tricks a wealthy family out their inheritance by will-tampering. The story might have come from the pages of the South China Morning Post, so audiences on the whole seem willing to overlook the references to Tuscany. The setting allowed for a number of (quite funny) culturally-specific sight gags.

Louise Kwong was radiant as Suor Angelica.

This semi-staged (orchestra on stage, the singers in costume) production featured an all-local cast, and again demonstrated the increasing depth of local operatic ability and Opera Hong Kong’s willingness to experiment with format to increase the number of productions and offer more opportunities for singers and public alike.

The orchestra left only only a thin slice at the front for some minimal props but a clever use of a raised platform and long staircase down to stage level provided physical depth and was the vehicle for dramatic extended entrances which were put to particular effect in the first of the two works, Suor Angelica. In this story of tragedy, cruelty and redemption, which Opera Hong Kong presented more or less in a traditional setting, Angelica has been sent to a convent to atone for having had an illegitimate child. Her aunt, the principessa, comes — after seven years — to force her to sign away her inheritance. The first news Angelica has of her child is that he died of illness two years ago. She poisons herself to join him.


Louise Kwong as Suor Angelica
Louise Kwong as Suor Angelica

The sopranos outperformed. Louise Kwong was radiant in the title role of Suor Angelica, a taxing role, both musically and emotionally. Hers was an Angelica that torn between submission and resistance. The role of the principessa, a haughty and entirely horrible woman in late middle age, is a short one—Lin sang both nights—but is the opera’s dramatic fulcrum. Lin managed the low-lying part with much affronted dignity and verisimilitude. Gianni Schicchi features one of opera’s best-known arias, “O mio babbino caro”, sung by Lauretta, Schicchi’s daughter, to appeal for his help. Alison Lau’s Lauretta was coy and the rendition sweet. Sammy Chien sang the title role of Gianni Schicchi twice; it is a comic rather than lyrical part and Chien’s sense of comic timing was instrumental in the second half’s audience appeal.

The double bill was performed twice with (somewhat) different casts the two nights. These semi-staged productions prove that much can be done with little.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He wrote the programme notes for these performances.