English Touring Opera tackle two of the Italian composer's shorter works

Puccini is the popular opera lover’s preferred choice of composer. And there’s a good reason for that. Reliably, Puccini can turn out the big tune, the heart stopping harmony, the memorable melody that stays with you. Even if you don’t know the full opera, you’ll almost certainly know the famous bits of Tosca or Turandot, Madame Butterfly or La Bohème.

You will probably also know the aria 'O mio babino caro', although you might have to think for a moment before naming the opera for which it forms the centrepiece: Gianni Schicchi, which is rather unusual in the composer’s output. It’s a short one-act opera and it’s a comedy – the only complete one in Puccini’s output.

English Touring Opera performs it at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, as part of its short season in Northern Ireland. The companion piece of similar length but contrasting emotional content is Il Tabarro by the same composer.

Both operas are tightly structured masterpieces that satisfy the listener’s need for cleverly resolved story lines. Add to that the gloriously orchestrated music of the great Italian maestro, played effectively by the ETO pit band, and you have the ideal combination.

ETO’s prismatic productions of these two works are intriguing without ever becoming smart. The set and lighting designs are undistractingly evocative and, in the case of Gianni Schicchi, fussily authentic. They succeed in conveying just the right atmospheric backdrop for the two stories.

The casting of the singers demonstrates a uniform quality, although I particularly like the Italianate tenor voice of Charne Rochford in Il Tabarro and the vocal versatility of Richard Mosley-Evans as Gianni Schicchi.

Some people may consider the buying in of such productions a cop out, a disservice to local operatic aspirations. In my opinion, they are wrong. Due to the costs involved, we cannot hope to put on productions like this on a sufficiently regular basis. The new Northern Ireland Opera company is complemented by ETO and Scottish Opera - which comes to Northern Ireland this month (June) - not threatened by such visits.

And if Northern Irish audiences are given opportunities to hear the more unusual repertoire performed by the likes of ETO, then let’s hope they keep coming. My question would be - why aren’t there more people attending?