Luis Ledesma (photo by Richard Termine)
Of all the opera companies we have missed, On Site Opera heads the list. Unique among opera companies, On Site Opera makes an asset out of "homelessness". As they say, home is where the heart is, and On Site Opera's heart is wherever they can set a given opera in a meaningful locale.
For tonight's delight, Director Eric Einhorn decided quite rightly that The Prince George Ballroom, ornate and dripping in luxury, would be the right home for Gianni Schicchi, Puccini's late life comedic masterpiece.
Any dramatist will tell you that comedy is more difficult to write and more challenging to act, than tragedy. It must also be true for composition because neither Puccini nor Verdi tackled the genre until the end of their writing careers. As a matter of fact, it was the last work to which Puccini set his pen. Although he intended the work to be part of a trilogy, this trilogy has often been broken up and this work, the most popular of the three one-act operas, has been wed to quite a number of other one-act operas. On Site Opera chose to present it alone which, given the discomfort of sitting with a mask over one's breathing organs, was a wise decision. Coming in at one hour it was just right, leaving the audience with (sadly invisible) smiles on their faces.
How was this delight achieved? To start with, Giovacchino Forzano's libretto, derived from an 1866 edition of Dante's Inferno (based on real 14th c. Florentine characters), pokes fun at the greed of a selfish family of "aristocrats" and also at the contempt they had for the rising "middle class". Now isn't that the kind of satire we can relate to today? Do we not also get a secret kick out of scoundrels getting away with bad behavior? And what about that very very valuable mule?? There is something truly hilarious about this family fighting over said mule!
Secondly, Puccini's music is filled with humor. We cannot say what makes music amusing but likely a musicologist could elaborate on the rhythms and recurrent motifs lacing the score that tickle the ear and bring a smile to the face. There is a wonderful contrast between the dirge-like music as the family pretends to be grieving, the frisky music of everyone rushing around to create their false scenario, and the romantic music for the lovers. Geoffrey McDonald's conducting of his chamber orchestra--strangely but effectively situated behind the audience--brought out every twist and turn of the score such that we heard things we had not noticed in prior hearings.
Finally, It is the joyful attitude of the cast who seemed to revel in their creation of characters drawn somewhat from the commedia del'arte tradition. In the title role we had the rubber-faced Luis Ledesma whose fine baritone filled out the role as effectively as his shape filled out the apropos costume of a man climbing out of the peasant class by means of a sharp wit and a lack of compunction about breaking the law.
This seems a rather odd association but we kept thinking about Tony Soprano, a criminal who won over his audience by charm. He kept his dirty dealings from his daughters, much the way Schicchi protected Lauretta by sending her out to feed the birds whilst he schemed and set up his self-serving plot. In the character's way of thinking, he was providing for his daughter's future, even risking hell for himself. There is nothing odd about a parvenu marrying into an aristocratic family headed for impoverishment, as we observed in Il Gattopardo, taking place at the time of the Risorgimento.
As Lauretta we heard the charming soprano Laura León who interpreted her character as a sweet innocent girl who loves Rinuccio for who he is, wealth or no wealth. To her is granted the most famous aria of the opera "O mio babbino caro" which, in a master directorial stroke, she delivered standing on top of a trunk, allowing her not only a sense of importance but also permitted her to mime throwing herself into the Arno. The winsomeness of her presence and the clarity of tone and phrasing made this an unforgettable performance.
As Rinuccio, tenor John Riesen turned in a similarly winning performance. He was successful in winning over his nasty squabbling relatives with his finely tuned tenor in "Avete torto... Firenze è come un albero fiorito" as well as winning over the audience. His duet with Ms. León was particularly fine with their voices blending in well balanced fashion.
David Langan's resonant bass and haughty demeanor were just right for Simone in an interpretation that we had not witnessed previously. As Zita Patrice P. Easton created a formidable matriarch who tolerated no nonsense. The lower part of her register was just perfect and at one point she took the artistic risk of growling out her line and we couldn't keep from laughing out loud. It was one of those perfect moments.
Often, in an ensemble work like this one, it is difficult to differentiate the characters. However, up close and personal as this was, we were able to discern their individuality. Simone's son Marco and his wife La Ciesca were portrayed by baritone Jonathan R. Green and mezzo-soprano Alexandria Crichlow. Poor relation Betto was sung by Jay Louis Chacon. The roles of nephew Gherardo and his wife Nella were well sung by tenor Michael Kuhn and soprano Sarah Beth Pearson. Their son Gherardino was portrayed as a bratty kid who didn't want to run an errand without getting paid. The voluptuous Savannah McElhaney acted the part well without quite convincing us that she was a 7-year-old boy.
The small parts were also well cast and well performed. Brian McQueen managed to differentiate Dottore Spinelloccio and the Notario Amantio. Pinellino the cobbler was played by David Kahng. The non-singing part of the dying Buoso Donati was played by Martin Pfefferkorn.
We are aware that Woody Allen set the work in a tenement which makes no sense whatsoever. Lots of liberties have been taken with the work. Bringing it into the mid 20th c. by means of the costuming (Susan Memmott Allred) worked OK. But we couldn't stop thinking how this century-old work was composed at the time of the tragic flu epidemic and how that relates to the present. But these connections are best made in the minds of the audience.
© meche kroop