Review: GIANNI SCHICCHI at Opera Theatre Saint Louis

Puccini's gem of comic chicanery delights Saint Louis.

By: May. 24, 2021
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Review: GIANNI SCHICCHI at Opera Theatre Saint Louis Review: GIANNI SCHICCHI at Opera Theatre Saint Louis

The glorious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis opened it's festival season last night with a sheer delight: Puccini's delectable one-act comedy, Gianni Schicchi.

Yes, after a terrible year of quarantine this world-class company has burst the chains of Zoom and streaming to present a real live on-stage performance.

My congratulations to all in every position of the company for the truly heroic efforts that must have been required to make this evening so charming, so comfortable, and so artistically satisfying--given the health strictures still required by local authorities and by performers' contracts. They've constructed an outside theatre on what was a parking lot. It is, of course, smaller and less lush than their usual venue, but it is quite serviceable. Pre-show picnicking on the grounds is available as usual-though tables are more sparsely spaced.

For weeks before, I am sure, the many folks involved in this production--and their loving patrons--had been making offerings to the gods of weather to ward off inclemency. Well, those gods smiled and laid out for us a lovely dove-soft evening.

Gianni Schicchi is in one act-about an hour long. It's part of the composer's Trittico (tryptich) of short operas reflecting three contrasting modes-tragic, lyrical, and comic. Opera Theatre produced the tragic Il Tabarro in 2018; Winter opera gave us the lyrical Suor Angelica just this March; now we have the decidedly farcical Schicchi to complete the set.

It starts with a bang. The great Leonard Slatkin leads a tranche of the St. Louis Symphony into the lively, even hectic music of the opening scene where a large Florentine family hovers at the death-bed of their wealthy patriarch, Buoso Donati. Such moaning, such wailing, such grief! But this is nothing compared to the howling that occurs when, after Buoso dies, his will is found and (Oh, the outrage!) he has left almost everything to the friars!!

Now, young Rinuccio is much more concerned with love than with inheritance. He's desperate to marry the lovely Lauretta, but his parents disapprove. Lauretta is the daughter of the nouveau-riche Gianni Schicchi, and thus socially beneath the old-money Donatis. But Schicchi is known for his craftiness, and Rinuccio suggests that the family solicit his help with the problem of the will.

Schicchi is summoned and he quickly offers this solution: they should remove the body, and he, Schicchi, will impersonate the dying Buoso. He'll dictate a new will to the likings of the surviving family. But . . . if anyone finds out they'll all have their fingers cut off, and they'll be exiled forever from Florence! And of course Schicchi leaves the very best of everything--the mansion, the sawmills at Signa and the fabulously valuable mule--to himself.

It's all a very lively farce. And it's filled with a wonderfully diverse assortment of beautiful Puccini music-from spritely scampering to warmly lyrical to passages rich in intertwined musical voices. There is one monumentally memorable aria-"Oh, my dear Papa" ("O mio babbino caro")-in which Lauretta pleads for her father's support in marrying Rinuccio; this is soaring, gorgeous, lyrical Puccini at his most sublime, and Elena Villalón so easily makes it hers. Joshua Blue brings his strong, bell-clear tenor voice and admirable diction to the role of Rinuccio. He joins Miss Villalón to make their love duet at the end another very memorable high-point of the evening.

The role of Gianni Schicchi is sung by baritone Levi Hernandez. I last saw him four years ago in Opera Theatre's The Grapes of Wrath where he sang a powerfully dramatic Pa Joad. Talk about a change of pace! Hernandez sings with a strong and rich baritone, and with a fine sense of comedy. He ludicrously transforms his voice into that of the dying "Buoso".

Two other members of the large cast deserve special praise: Nathan Stark has quite striking basso power in the role of Simone, the eldest of the Donatis. And Evan Landowski, as the Notary, triumphs in a passage filled with Latin gobbledygook.

Stage director Sean Curran deftly manages all those folks on this rather small stage. Set designer Allen Moyer gives us a richly detailed Florentine bed-chamber. Projection designer Greg Emetz gives us lovely views of Florence through the window.

I have only one quibble with this production. The story of this opera is taken from a character in Dante's Inferno. The libretto sets it in the year 1299. James Schuette's costumes seem to transpose the story into the 1930's. Now there are several characters who are close approximations of traditional Commedia characters: Schicchi himself is very like Harlequin; Lauretta is as close as dammit to the Innamorata (or Columbina); the Doctor is, well, Il Dottore, and Simone, the elder, is not that far from Pantalone. Then there is the final moment where Schicchi breaks the fourth wall to make an apologia to the audience: "Forgive us our trickery. It was all in a good cause." It's so very like Puck's final speech in Midsummer Night's Dream. So the entire tone of the piece is much more comfortable in the early Renaissance, when Florence was a powerful city-state growing in self-conscious grandeur. Color! Tights! Flowing skirts! The world in the 1930's was much more drably dressed. And we know what Italy was in the '30's--it was Mussolini. I will gladly forgive the time-switch if it was due to resource constraints--but not if it was an artistic choice.

All in all, though, it was a marvellously successful evening. The season at Opera Theatre of St. Louis continues with:

  • Gianni Schicchi - May 28, June 2, 6, 11
  • Highway 1, U.S.A. - May 29, June 4, 13, 17
  • La voix humaine - June 5, 14, 20
  • New Works, Bold Voices - June 10, 12, 16, 18
  • I Dream a World - June 15
  • Center Stage - June 19

Photos by Eric Woolsey

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