BWW Review: GIANNI SCHICCHI/L'ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES at Occidental College
On February 2, 2020, Pacific Opera Project (POP) presented Giacomo Puccini and Giovacchino Forzano's 1918 Gianni Schicchi with Maurice Ravel and Colette's 1925 L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells), a pair of lesser known operas, to a most receptive audience at Occidental College. Angelino opera fans know that POP's Artistic Director Josh Shaw gives them good shows even if their titles are unfamiliar and that his comedy is always funny. Musically, both works are from the period shortly after World War I and the elementary school-aged boy in the first opera can be The Child in the second.
Based on a story in Dante's Divine Comedy, the comic libretto for Gianni Schicchi by Forzano involves a family fighting over what they think should be their inheritance. According to a passage from The Inferno, Schicchi was condemned to Hell for cheating the Church by taking the place of Buoso Donati, a dead relative, in order to write a false will. Buoso has left all his worldly goods to a monastery. Posing as Buoso, Schicchi gives some property to the "grieving" relatives but reserves a large portion for himself, reminding them that the punishment for taking part in the crime is loss of one's right hand and banishment.
Gifted comic actor and stentorian bass-baritone E. Scott Levin was a conniving Schicchi who managed to convince a lawyer and witnesses that he was the dying Buoso Donati. Surprisingly, he did it with a large nightcap and loose sheets but no bed curtains to hide behind. He created most aspects of the fatally-ill character with his voice.
David Handler built the unit set that sufficed well for both operas. I suspect the original set design was at least influenced by Artistic Director Shaw. A large bed on wheels served both Schicchi and the Child. Other pieces included a wardrobe from which the body of the recently deceased Buoso fell out on cue, drawers full of papers that flew about, separating book shelves, and a deep fireplace that allowed Sortilège-characters to enter as if by magic. Marie Scott Mawji's lighting helped immensely with the technical effects necessary in order to present these operas. Costume Designer Maggie Green established the time period as 1955 for both shows.
Gianni Schicchi is also a love story because the impostor's daughter, Lauretta, sung by Tiffany Ho, is in love with the dead man's nephew, Rinuccio, sung by Jonathan Matthews. It was she who sang the famous aria "O, mio babbino caro," (O my dear daddy) to convince Schicchi to allow them to marry. Eventually, the couple would have a major share in the proceeds from the crime. Matthews was a youthful, energetic Rinuccio and Ho a gloriously radiant, silver-voiced Lauretta from whom I hope to hear a great deal more in the near future. As the know-it-all Zita, Sharmay Musacchio, tried to rule the Donati roost but was outwitted by Schicchi. Others in the cast were interesting characters with common foibles who might have resembled audience members' own relatives.
After intermission POP presented L'Enfant et les Sortilèges. During World War I, Paris Opera director Jacques Rouché asked Colette to provide the text for a ballet. She originally wrote the story as part of her Divertissements pour ma Fille, (Entertainments for my Daughter). Ravel said, "I would like to compose this, but I have no daughter." Thus, Colette made the title character male, revised the text and made the piece an opera libretto. Perhaps some day a company will present it with a girl or young woman as The Child.
In L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, the naughty Gherardino from Schicchi, developed violent outbursts of temper, so his Mother, sung with strong tones by Sonja Krenek, sent him to his room with dry bread and unsweetened tea for dinner. She was not the best of mothers, so magic spells were needed to make this boy turn into a sensitive human being. Alone in his room he threw items around, tore books apart, and broke dishes. Here, Colette's love for cats came through as she had two cats, E. Scott Levin and Sharmay Musacchio, sing and dance as they lured The Child into their milieu. They were funny and sentimental at the same time as they made the boy realize that animals feel pain just as humans do.
Wearing Maggie Green's creative designs, Danielle Marcelle Bond as the China Teacup and Robert Normand as the Clay Teapot danced a pas de deux and sang a duet. Starting off as an Arm Chair, two hands and sleeved arms appeared from its back and a head popped up from its center. The large tan chair and its slim pink-flowered companion, played by Tom Sitzler and Audrey Yoder, turned into singing, chair-wearing dancers who, like the dishes, wanted to get away from the naughty child. An Arithmetic Teacher, William Grundler, danced with a group of number-spewing students. Various garden animals frightened the boy by calling for revenge until they saw him bandage a squirrel's bleeding paw.
The opera ended when The Child showed he had learned compassion and his mother returned. Since there is no orchestra pit in Thorne Hall, the players were behind the singers. Conductor Josh Horsch led POP's 26-piece orchestra in a sometimes blended, other times translucent rendition of these early 20th century works. I hope other opera companies will pick up this wonderful version of Gianni Schicchi and L'Enfant et les Sortilèges.
Photos: Martha Benedict for Pacific Opera Project