|Brett Vogel, Timothy Madden, Helaine Liebman, Drew Seigla, Allison Gish, Jay Lucas Chacon, Alanna Fraize, and Eamon Pereyra|
This is the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Puccini's Il Trittico, of which Gianni Schicchi was the last of three one-act operas. It is the most popular of the three, probably because it not only contains some gorgeous melodies but because Giovacchino Forzano's libretto is hilarious. Forzano based his libretto on a minor character in Dante's Divine Comedy--actually a real live person in 13th c. Florence. Many of the characters have roots in commedia dell'arte.
Last night we attended the opening night of this masterpiece presented by ARE Opera at the Kraine Theater, the sightlines of which make every seat a good one. The opera will be performed through Sunday. ARE stands for "accessible. relatable, and enjoyable". Judging by the whooping and applause at the conclusion of the evening, they have found their audience.
The company debuted last May with a stellar production of Rossini's Cenerentola, with the audience surrounding the action, a situation that enhanced the immersive quality. In spite of admirable musical values, last night's production felt more alienating than involving. We don't attribute this alienation to the proscenium type stage. We sat on the front row but did not feel involved.
Although we have sometimes enjoyed an opera brought up to date, in this case we did not for many reasons. When we see operas set in other time periods we like to do the work ourselves, the work of considering how the desires and fears of the characters are echoed in the present time. We think of lovers we know who have been betrayed, of fathers who have alienated their children, of people who put duty ahead of desire. To have a director try so hard to make a point feels like spoon-feeding.
It is likely that there were not many Italophones in the audience, but for us, or anyone who is familiar with the libretto, to hear the libretto sung accurately (and beautifully sung we might add) whilst the projected subtitles are saying something completely different, is disturbing. The libretto was shoehorned into a concept that only an inexperienced director (or one who directs cinema perhaps) would devise.
Singing about the New York skyline is just lacking in the flavor of Florence. The dead aristocrat Buoso lives on Park Avenue and is wearing a red onesie. His aristocratic family grasping after his inheritance bore no resemblance to the wealthy folk of Manhattan. The wealthy folk of today contest wills in court. The story loses its significance in the updating.
Instead of leaving his money to the monks, this Buoso left it to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. It is one thing to laugh at a medieval man leaving his land and his mill and his mule to the monks; it is quite another thing for a 21st c. man to leave his yacht and his home in the Hamptons to an organization that fills the dying wishes of children with cancer. When the titles read about the family's scornful opinion of dying children, it just ISN'T FUNNY!
When the notary arrives, in this case an attorney we imagine, he is accompanied not by a cobbler and a dyer but by a "stylist". We suppose he styled the red onesie!
Dr. Spinelloccio, as the titles indicate "Johns Hopkins and Harvard trained", is dressed in slovenly fashion, a doctor that no Park Avenue resident would employ as personal physician.
Schicchi threatening the family with prison if they reveal his duplicity does not carry the same weight as the threat of cutting off the hand, as the libretto indicates. It is a marvelous moment in the opera when Schicchi dictates his will to the notary and waves his hand in the air to warn the family.
We could go on and on about the failures of this concept and its execution. But the audience laughed and presumably had a great time. They obviously found it more "relatable" than we did.
We rather chose to focus on the performances which were all fine. Baritone Patrick McNally made a wily Schicchi and seemed very much at home in the role. The program contained no bios but we warrant that he has performed this role before. We liked the fullness of his voice and his dramatic instincts.
Tenor Eamon Pereyra sang sweetly as Rinuccio and aced his big aria "Firenze e comé un albero fiorioto"; Rinuccio wants very much to marry Schicchi's daughter Lauretta, beautifully sung by Rachel Policar who gave us a lovely "O mio babbino caro" with the titles telling us that she would throw herself into the East River if she couldn't go to Tiffany's for a ring. The two also had a lovely duet together--"Lauretta mia".
As Rinuccio's Zia Zita, mezzo-soprano Allison Gish employed her substantial instrument and stage presence to create a character. She seemed to be a bit over-directed as an alcoholic.
Timothy Madden's deeply resonant bass-baritone was just right for the role of Simone, the eldest and the wisest among the family. Baritone Jay Lucas Chacon made a fine Marco with mezzo-soprano Alanna Fraize equally fine as his wife. But her exercising him on the floor of the dead Buoso made it look as if she were a visiting yoga teacher. Just another example of an inexperienced director trying too hard.
Tenor Drew Seigla sang the role of Gherardo with soprano Helaine Liebman performing his wife Nella. Instead of the little boy Gherardino they had a very spoiled daughter Gherardina (Ella Scronic Jaffe) who kept holding her papa up for funds.
The role of Betto was well sung by bass Brett Vogel. Betto is the "poor relation" and an opportunity was missed to dress him less fashionably than the others. But the others were not stylishly dressed. The family is supposed to resent Schicchi for being a peasant but in this production he was the most elegant one onstage.
Bass Alexander Sheerin was effective as Dottore Spinelloccio, in spite of the slovenly attire. Baritone Andrew O'Shanick portrayed the notary/attorney and actually looked right for the part. His two witnesses were the basses Steven Ralph and Nathanael Taylor.
Maestro Jonathan Heaney conducted with his customary sure hand and Andrew Sun played the keyboard as if it were the full orchestra.
In sum, all the singers performed admirably but deserved better direction. We want to believe what we see onstage!
We admire ARE Opera for their mission and they have certainly engaged the audience and have brought opera to the public for a very modest ticket price. They also have a mission of engaging youth and have programs to foster opera appreciation in the schools and programs to prepare high school students for conservatory auditions. They deserve your support.
(c) meche kroop