Gianni Schicchi – Spring 2012
Suor Angelica – Spring 2012
• Gallery A | • Gallery B
If the success of an opera performance is determined by the audiences’ enthusiastic responses, then the University of Arizona’s Opera Theater’s productions of Giacomo Puccini’s two, one-act operas, Suor Angelica* and Gianni Schicchi,** certainly deserved all the applause they received.
Charles Roe, the Opera Theater’s Artistic Director, first produced these operas back in 2001, but this time, thanks to Ameilia Reiman’s generous endowment, the director was able to mount them with the best sets, costumes and singers the Opera Theater has to offer.
Looking at the artistic accomplishments of Opera Theater over the years, it’s fitting to start with Set Designer Sally Day’s work. For the past seven years, Day has provided Roe with interesting and imaginative sets appropriate to time and place for operas as diverse as The Consul, The Rape of Lucrecia and Il Matrimonio Segreto to name a few. Once again, Day came up with a set design that complimented the stage settings that Puccini had clearly described in the operas’ scores. Day built a series of gothic arches toward the rear that crossed from stage right to stage left. Colored in a mixture of grays and greens with a stone-like trim around each arch, they not only gave a sturdy look to the 17th-Century convent for Suor Angelica, but they served as a background for the interior of Buoso Donati’s 13th-Century home in Florence in Gianni Schicchi. Day made the set appear as if it was a natural fit for both centuries. She added two doorways with double doors that easily served all the comings and goings Roe had asked for from the casts.
Another benefit for the Opera Theater’s audiences over the years has been the school’s emphasis on improving the students’ vocal quality. And there is no better opera composer to demonstrate this than Giacomo Puccini. The popularity of his operas sometimes obscures the many vocal and dramatic demands Puccini asks of his singers. Even though Angelica is a short opera, the lead role is no less demanding.
Since Roe began presenting both the fall and spring operas in four performances, double casting has become a reality and a challenge. Double casting worked very well for The Consul in November 2011, and it has again for Suor Angelica. Sopranos Yunnie Park and Jenny Beauregard were able to ride the roles top notes with ease. In fact, both singers hit those notes combining accurate pitch with a rich sound that made those moments very moving. But there was a difference in their dramatic approaches to Angelica’s plight.
From the beginning, Park used her powerful vocals to portray Angelica’s dire emotional state, from showing her acquiescence to convent life, to the news of her illegitimate son’s death, to her attempted suicide, and finally to her plea to the Blessed Virgin to forgive her sin of despair. Beauregard was not able to keep this strong emotional pitch throughout her performance, but still had sufficient involvement to be convincing.
Double casting also gave audiences an opportunity to hear how the two sopranos interpreted the aria “Senza Mamma,” Angelica’s plea to join her son in heaven. Park expressed the nun’s heartbreak with strong vocals declaiming her anguish, while Beauregard chose to express the aria as an intimate dialogue between her and her dead child.
Mackenzie Romreill’s interpretation and look as the Principessa was not the sombre-garbed, aged characterization we usually see in this role. She entered the convent dressed in a fashionable 17th-Century outfit, sporting a pair of long earrings, her red hair styled in grand-dame fashion. Romreill’s mezzo doesn’t have the dark bottom voice that many singers bring to the role, but her singing was impressively in tune with a keen sense of how to present her version of the Principessa. She brought real pathos and pangs of remorse in the section where Puccini asks her to recall her life with Angelica’s mother. And at the end of her encounter with Angelica, Romreill’s body language expressed not only the low opinion she had of Angelica, but also for the nuns who helped her convince Angelica to give up her inheritance. Romreill’s pique was spot on.
Roe gave graduate student Kyle Connor the opportunity to direct Suor Angelica. Connor added two directorial touches for Angelica that were remarkable in that not only did they fit Angelica’s character, but they didn’t interfere with Puccini’s stage directions for the nun. In the aria “Senza Mamma,” Angelica pulled a small crocheted bonnet out from under her scapular which she clasped in her hand. And just before Angelica’s attempted suicide, she placed a small bouquet of roses, a candle and a crucifix on the ground in front of her, as if she were marking out her son’s grave. These dramatic additions gave the audience even more reason to become involved with Angelica’s heartbreak.
Not all of Connor’s ideas worked as well as these two. Angelica’s loud scream when the Principessa tells the nun of her son’s death went well beyond Angelica’s collapsed state of mind. Also, Asleif Wilmer’s singing in the smaller role of Sister Genevieve was appropriately sweet in nature, but her stretched out arms, seemingly to show her innocence, was a gesture held far too long. Connor, to his credit, was able to move the chorus of nuns easily around the stage in time with the music.
If Suor Angelica showed Puccini’s intense devotion to the lives of his heroines, Schicchi shows the composer’s fun-loving irreverence toward greedy relatives and undeserving church people. And Puccini, in this, his only comedy, struck gold at every turn.
Puccini was fortunate to team up with Giovacchino Forzano, Schicchi‘s librettist. Forzano was not only a playwright and critic, but came before the public as baritone before he moved into journalism. He was also the librettist for Suor Angelica which was based on one of his original ideas. Forzano’s literary abilities also show up in Gianni Schicchi. As musicologist Julian Budden states in his book, Puccini, the librettist took “his cue from a few lines in the 30th canto of Dante’s Inferno and built his plot around the Florentine rogue Gianni Schcchi, who cheated the Donati family out of an inheritance by impersonating the deceased and dictating a new will in his own favour–but in Forzano’s version with the laudable intention of uniting two loving hearts.”
Even though the opera is an ensemble piece, the singer who portrays Schicchi is the one responsible for a successful performance. Roe’s choice of Seth Kershisnik was right on the mark. With a number of admirable performances with the Opera Theater in the past, the baritone, who also dabbles in the bass line, put relaxed vocals, an easy stage manner and, until now, an unrecognized talent for comedy on view, turning Puccini’s scallywag into a likeable protagonist.
Kershisnik’s physical appearance as Schicchi could have posed a problem for him. The singer is far too tall and far too good looking to fit Puccini’s characterization in the libretto. But he turned it to his advantage by using charm instead of guile to inveigle Donati’s relatives out of their property in order to secure a good financial future for his daughter Lauretta.
In one of the best examples of Roe’s novel approach to Schicchi, the director had Kershisnik speak in very funny wizened voice in all of Donati’s dialogue. Kershisnik was at his comedic best at these moments and, most important, the audience responded in delight to his antics.
As for the Donati clan — Brandon Dale as Gherardo, Ivette Ortiz and Asleif Wilmer alternating as Nella, José Coca as Betto, Alejandro Bañuelos as Marco, Brandon Arzate as Gherardino and Ellen Hinkle and Angeline Chairez as Ciesca along with Jess Koehn’s patriarchal Simone performed with exemplary timing and textual clarity. A particularly funny moment came when Emily Spirk as a nervous Zita gathered the family around her to read Donati’s will. The gang’s body language went from gleeful anticipation to outraged horror on finding out Donati had screwed them royally by leaving his fortune to an equally greedy order of monks. As their writhing bodies moved stage front, they punctuated their raging vocals with fists held high in a blasphemous tribute to Puccini’s devilish sense of humor.
Sopranos Victoria McKean and Sun Young Lee, alternating as Lauretta, and tenor Mitchell Sturges as Rinuccio have arias that are not only beautiful, melodic gems, but are important to the opera’s plot. Lauretta in “O mio babbino caro,” tells us in no uncertain terms that if her father doesn’t help the Donati family, she can’t marry Runuccio and will throw herself into the river Arno. Naturally Schicchi accedes. In Rinuccio’s aria, “Avete torto,” he suggests to and later convinces his family to welcome the shrewd Schicchi into their machinations.
McKean and Lee gave effective readings to the aria which is short and easily handled. Sturges, on the other hand, ran into difficulties with his aria. It should be noted, Puccini wrote a long and vocally challenging aria for his tenor which ends in two, ringing high B flats. At present, Sturges doesn’t have them in his vocal arsenal. However, Sturges did exhibit a clear and easy vocal production throughout the opera.
Costumer Designer Christopher Allan outfitted the nuns in habits appropriate for the 17th century and all his costumes for Schicchi were cleanly designed for the opera’s pre-Renaissance setting. The wigs he selected for McKean and Lee, however, were not flattering to their body types.
Again, Music Director Thomas Cockrell led his Arizona Symphony Orchestra with a firm hand and made it shine in all of Anglica‘s sustained lyrical lines and in Schicchi‘s fast-paced, fully-packed score that Puccini so brilliantly placed on his bar lines.
Performance dates for Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi with The University of Arizona Opera Theater: Thursday April 12, Friday April 13 and Saturday April 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday April 15 at 3:00 p.m.
* Synopsis of Suor Angelica
Because of the scandal that she caused her noble family by having an illegitimate child, Sister Angelica has done penance in a convent for seven years. The Princess, her aunt, arrives to demand that Angelica sign a document that turns over her inheritance to her younger sister, who is about to get married. When Sister Angelica inquires about her son, the Princess coldly tells her that he has been dead for two years. The Princess departs, refusing forgiveness. In despair, Angelica takes poison. Recognizing too late that she has committed a monstrous sin, she begs the Virgin to give her a sign of forgiveness before she dies. In a vision, the Virgin appears leading a little child, which she sends towards Angelica, while a heavenly chorus sings of her salvation.
Synopsis for Gianni Schicchi
Buoso Donati has died and left his considerable estate to charity. His greedy relatives, deeply shocked, decide to accept Rinuccio’s advice and ask help of Gianni Schicchi, a well-known local rogue and the father of Rincuccio’s sweetheart, Lauretta. Schicchi’s approach is direct: the deceased is removed and Schicchi takes his place in bed. When even the doctor is fooled, the delighted relatives call in a notary to hear “Donati” make a new will. The delight turns to helpless rage, however, as the resourceful Schicchi wills the bulk of the old man’s property to himself.