We did not feel at all cheated experiencing two of the three operas conceived by Puccini as a trilogy. There was enough aural beauty that we left the Peter Jay Sharp theater on opening night feeling totally satisfied by a tight production of the tragic Suor Angelica and a rollicking production of the comedy Gianni Schicchi. Fortunately, we eschewed reading the program until after the production, allowing it to speak for itself. Having read John Giampietro's Director's Note, we think it valid to position both works as pleas for forgiveness and the achievement of moral redemption--valid, but rather a stretch and definitely unnecessary.
The gloomy grey setting used for both operas seemed more like a prison than a convent. The "Synopsis" tells us that this is a contemporary "community of holy women" but we know, dear reader, that this is a convent and it is not contemporary. Not having read the notes in advance, we just thought of it as a convent since the dialogue makes it perfectly clear with references to the Virgin Mary and penitence and obedience. Whatever those blue scarves the women were fooling with, they were easy to ignore in favor of focusing on the musical values. Bringing set elements up onstage by removing tiles in the floor was just plain silly.
But oh, those musical values! Maestro Daniela Candillari made the most of the resources at hand--the completely magnificent Juilliard Orchestra which we would prefer to listen to than to the NYPhilharmonic. Mo. Candillari brought out more layers in the score than we had heard heretofore and achieved perfect balance to the orchestral sections.
The singing was fine with the heavy lifting done by Deborah Love as Sister Angelica, delivering a moving "Senza Mamma" with passionate intensity. There was quite a contrast with the Zia Principessa of brilliant mezzo-soprano Natalie Lewis (whose arrival in a gilded coach was translated as "vehicle" to fool us into thinking of this as happening in the 21st century).
Only in fundamentalist Muslim cultures are women so badly punished for an out-of-wedlock child; if some daring opera company decides to pick up that ball and run with it, we will probably beg off!
Ms. Lewis' rich lower register and austere body language were most persuasive and the tense scene between punitive aunt and wayward niece was most affecting. We believe it is a far better decision to keep this story in its own time and place--one in which a prominent aristocratic family would have suffered great shame by an out-of-wedlock birth. The marriageability of Angelica's sister would have been a major concern in the late 17th c. and jeopardized by scandal.
The other nuns don't get much chance to sing and it is challenging to tell one from another but we found the sincerity of Song Hee Lee as the guileless Suor Genovieffe to be touching as she confessed to still having desires to pet a lamb as she did in her former life as a shepherdess. There was something very alive and believable about her performance.
The costumes surely resembled nun's habits although they were lilac in color. A jagged golden crack in the wall was meant to suggest a fountain that glimmered from the sun only 3 days of the year. It was not convincing.
Cast of Gianni Schicchi (photo by Maria Baranova)
Although our companion preferred Suor Angelica, we enjoyed Gianni Schicchi the more. The drab set (Alexis Distler) did double duty but gave no indication that we were in the home of the wealthy Buoso Donati who had just died and was surrounded by his phonily grieving and authentically greedy family.
Here, we are clearly at the turn of the 14th c. in the newly resplendent Renaissance town of Firenzi. Dante Alighieri's tale has been brought to vivid life by Puccini's tuneful music with the theme repeated so many times that we cannot get it out of our head. Audrey Nauman's apt costume design in soft ochres and golds compensated for the impoverished set.
Joseph Parrish made an exemplary Schicchi employing his full lower register to create a complex character, opening the performance with a tableau vivant in which he is holding the "corpse" of Donati right there in Purgatory where Alighieri placed him. He is a parvenu, come into town from the "boonies"; in spite of his reluctance to get involved with the grasping Donati family, he is willing to use his wily resourcefulness and risk damnation to appease his beloved daughter and, incidentally, to ensure his own future as well.
That the Famiglia Donati resent such an upstart and have to "hold their noses" to make use of his wily nature is a trope not unknown in 21st c. America. Thank goodness the director did not change the setting of the original! We like it when a production lets us make the connections ourselves.
The work is long on comedy but short on arias. We never tire of hearing "O mio babbino caro" and have heard it sung by the greatest sopranos of our time. Sydney Dardis turned in an appealing performance as Lauretta and can take pride in fine singing and emotional investment during the aria. There isn't much new to be mined in that aria but it's a fine thing to sing it well and with just enough manipulative edge to conquer her father's reluctance.
Tenor César Andrés Parreño was a perfect choice for the role of Rinuccio and his delivery of "Firenze è come un albero fiorito" was gloriously sung with just enough enthusiasm and believable emphasis on the ferment going on in Renaissance Florence.
We also enjoyed the trio of female relatives "Spogliati, bambolino" with Zita (Natalie Lewis), La Ciesca (Georgiana Adams) and Nella (Erin O'Rourke) working so well together that it truly emphasized the ensemble nature of the work.
Younggwang Park employed a sturdy and resonant bass to convincingly add decades to his age, performing the role of Simone, the eldest member of the family. Baritone Lewei Wang did well in the role of the Notary.
Also heard in the cast were Minki Hong as Marco, Shavon Lloyd as Betto, Jason Wang as Dottore Spinelloccio, Joe Gervase as Pinellino and Nazrin Alymann as Guccio. All contributed to the charming ensemble spirit.
And last but not least, in the role of little Gherardino, Stephanie Bell delighted the audience by scooting around in a cart and arousing the ire of "his" father Gherardo (tenor Colin Aikins).
It was indeed a splendid and satisfying evening.
© meche kroop