Gianni Schicchi, Beijing, National Centre for the Performing Arts, April 2011

We entered the theatre late, but though the Chinese are very punctual it didn’t matter a bit. Silently taking our seats we found ourselves watching a spoken prologue — in Chinese. The side-titles were also in Chinese, so I was fairly mystified at first. Then after Buoso died, the pianist lifted her hands to the keyboard, and the familiar music started, followed by the singing, in Italian.

Gianni Schicchi is such a witty opera one can hardly go wrong, and this was all enormous fun. The singers were wonderfully animated, all clearly looking forward to the death of Buoso, a silent mime that I’ve seen staged in other productions and found rather effective. After he expired, the entire cast — except Schicchi and his daughter Lauretta — surrounded the body, and events soon gathered pace with the search for the will.

When Brian Montgomery entered in the role of Schicchi, the performance reached new levels of wit and charm. This man, who has performed at the Met in New York and the Lyric in Chicago, as well as in many parts of Europe and the Far East, was a game changer, and the other singers supported him superbly. I can’t tell you the names of most cast members as they were only written in Chinese characters, but Rinuccio was well sung by Yang Yang, and his fiancée, Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta, was prettily sung by Wu Bixia, whose lyric coloratura is rather different from the usual soprano one expects.

It was all such fun that I managed to overlook the quiet chatter from audience members behind us, to say nothing of the man who used the light from his Blackberry to read the programme notes. Normally I’d go ballistic about such things, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. We’d entered slightly late, and weren’t the only ones. Others arrived throughout the performance and the ushers quietly and kindly showed them to their seats. The last ones came in ten minutes before the end of the opera, after which there were two encores, including a reprise of O mio babbino caro sung by the whole cast.

Anyone visiting Beijing should see the National Centre for the Performing Arts, a fabulous egg-shaped building surrounded by water. Its several theatres take time to walk to — and that’s after you’ve been through security where you must give up cameras and bottles of water — so arrive ten minutes early or, like us, you’ll be late for the performance.

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