Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Two-Faced Puccini

Puccini’s Suor Angelica & Gianni Schicchi
Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance
The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
July 7, 2017

Gianni Schicchi is Puccini at his deftest and best
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
The Martina Arroyo Foundation this year brought us a pair of one-act operas from Puccini’s Trittico. Rather than opt for the more common pairing of Il Tabarro (the first in the trilogy) and Gianni Schicchi (the last of the three), the program included Suor Angelica, which is the one that is most frequently cut – a tradition dating back to its earliest revivals a century ago.

Angelica and her evil aunt
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
It turns out that this tradition is not without reason, since we found Suor Angelica to be a real snore. It is the story of a mother whose extreme reaction to the news of the death of her child leads to suicide and finally the suggestion of religious redemption.

At its best it delivered a couple of moments of extreme beauty in which Puccini is at his most saccharine finest. At its worst it had a lot of pretty much useless fluff about nuns’ mundane activities in a convent courtyard. Not to mention the complete absence of a male voice to ground the whole work and mix things up a bit.

Soprano Michelle Johnson in the title role was competent but not outstanding. Too often it seemed like she was working too hard just to hit the notes. Too often she was simply drowned out by the orchestra. One of the few moments of real dramatic tension occurs during Angelica’s showdown with evil aunt, here depicted as a Goth princess by the uncompromising and stern Leah Marie de Gruyl.

Suor Angelica searches for her salvation
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis

How soon the dead are forgotten! The reading of the will
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
When it came to Gianni Schicchi, however, we discovered a whole other side of the composer. Who knew Puccini could be so funny?

Despite famous arias like the immortal O mio babbino caro, this opera is essentially an ensemble piece. Based on a episode hinted at briefly in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto XXX), Puccini’s fleshing out of the story comes across as something straight out of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

It's dog eat dog once the august patriarch has passed away
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
Buoso Donati, of a noteworthy Florentine line, lies on his deathbed when the curtain rises. As long as the details of his last will and testament remains suspended, his nearest and dearest are short on grief and long on greed. A good deal of hand wringing ensues until they strike on a solution. Everybody wants the same piece of their ancestor’s pie: something to do with a prime plot of land and prized mule. In a move that is more Boccaccescan levity than Dantean solemnity, the outcome is laugh out-loud hilarious.

There were several stand-out performances in what was truly a group effort. And virtually every singer on stage had excellent Italian (essential to convey the hilarious lines of the libretto) and perfect comic timing. Steven Mo Hanan as Simone Donati, the next in line for the role of patriarch in the Donati clan, set the comic tone of the piece with his slightly clueless take on the character that never went completely over the top.

Anna Adrian Whiteway as Lauretta sang a naively ingenuous O mio babbino caro that virtually came out of nowhere. Amidst the rest of the comic mugging and other humorous shenanigans of the story, all of a sudden this incredibly recognizable and heartbreakingly beautiful tune catches you off guard.

Rinuccio has an idea and an agenda of his own
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
Spencer Hamlin sang the role of Rinuccio, her beloved. He was youthfully boyish and bright in his affection for Lauretta as well as in his guileless introduction of the otherwise unwanted intervention of newcomer Gianni Schicchi, notorious trickster, into the family crisis.

And then there was the eponymous hero of the opera. Joshua DeVane leant his Gianni Schicchi a provincial air of an up-and-comer. The indictment of the nouveau riche in this respect falls right in line with both Boccaccio and Dante’s value system. The ways in which he is able to pull the wool over the eyes of everybody involved, from the notaio to Buoso’s heirs, when done right, as it was tonight, is a hysterical piece of comic theater. DeVane and company did it justice. Neither of us could suppress our laughter.

With Gianni Schicchi as their only hope!
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
The comic timing is embedded in the score and fast paced story. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is funnier than anything I have ever experienced in the operatic canon. I haven’t had this much fun at the opera in a very long time, if ever. Just hope next time we see this gem of a Puccini it will be paired with Il Tabarro instead!

– Lui & Lei
All gather round to hear the moral of the tale
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis

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