Brooklyn College Opera Theatre 2018-19 Review: Gianni Schicchi
Despite Thomas Massey’s Heroic Turn, This Production Falls FlatBy Chris Ruel
Rarely performed as a one-off, Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” is most commonly paired with one of the other two “Il Trittico” operas or a second shorter work by a composer other than Puccini.
However, Puccini was adamant that all three operas in his triptych should be performed together. Perhaps, it is because each of the three has a common theme: death. “Il Tabbaro,” the first opera in the series explores violent death; “Suor Angelica,” looks at the mystical side of life’s end; and, “Gianni Schicchi,” the darkly humorous aspects. However, a standalone “Schicchi” is a solid choice if a small company is looking to provide a quick shot of comedic opera for the masses.
As far as operatic storylines go, “Schicchi” is incredibly straightforward; relatives vie against one another over the last will of their wealthy relation. However, the simplicity of the story doesn’t make the opera a slam dunk. The opera is through-sung at a fast pace with elements of slapstick. And any music that’s part of the standard repertoire is not simple by any means.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn College Opera Theatre may have mistakenly thought an hour-long opera would be an easy win, but their execution proved otherwise.
Florence or Brooklyn?
Where was the city of Florence? If ever a city played a principal role in an opera, Florence in “Gianni Schicchi” is it. Remove Florence, and the show loses much of what makes it beautiful and not merely a raucous tale of greed and deception. There wasn’t even a picture of di Cambio and Brunelleschi’s iconic Florence Cathedral hanging on one of the walls of the set.
What makes Brooklyn College Opera Theatre’s decision to remove all visual references to Florence so frustrating is that “Gianni Schicchi” is very much an ode to the City of Lillies. Puccini wrote orchestral passages that mimic the flow of the Arno. Rinuccio sings of Florence as a “tree in flower,” and in Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro,” the young woman threatens to throw herself off the Ponte Vecchio.
So, where was Florence? Nowhere. It had been written out, and that marred the production right from the start. Removing Florence from “Gianni Schicchi” is the equivalent of excising Rome from “Tosca;” it just shouldn’t be done.
If Florence is so unimportant to the story, why does the Donati family seem less concerned about getting a hand chopped off than being booted from the city for falsifying Buoso’s will? The story makes it clear that the Donati family represents old-money Florence as they rail against newcomers like the Schicchi’s and the nouveau riche. To be ousted from Florence was worse than the chop of an ax to a Donati.
To watch a production in which the city has disappeared from view might not be as physically painful as an ax to the wrist, but it surely pains an operagoer’s heart.
Nothing Worth Fighting Over
Instead, Brooklyn Opera Theatre set the opera in what appeared to be a lower-middle-class home sometime during the 1950s. The relatives of the wealthy Buoso Donati gather together, awaiting the death of the old man.
As the opening bars swelled, Buoso wrestles with death, breathes his last, and falls lifeless on to the pillows. The scene was amusing. Other productions begin with Buoso belly-up as the curtain opens. However, what was immediately noticeable wasn’t the initial comedic twist, but the fact that Buoso Donati’s residence appeared as if he hadn’t much wealth at all, certainly not anything worth bickering over.
The wily Schicchi should have happily, and willing let the greedy Donati’s take the standing lamp, the drab wardrobe, and hospital-like bed with them when at the end of the opera, in a fit of rage, they ransack Buoso’s home in response to Schicchi’s double cross. By the looks of the sparse Donati quarters and the absence of any visual reference to Florence, the action could have been taking place in a small mid-20th-century apartment in Brooklyn. Seeing as the production took place in Brooklyn, perhaps that was the point, but removing all the trappings of wealth the Donati family is clawing to get their hands on was yet another a bridge too far for this production.
The Brooklyn College Opera Theatre orchestra under the baton of Music Director George Rothman disappointed. Maestro Rothman has a solid resumé, but his pacing was faster than necessary even for a rapid-fire comedy; the dynamics overpowered the singers, and the orchestra sounded flat at various times.
Take, for example, Rinuccio’s ode to Florence, “Firenze è come un albero fiorito.” The aria is written in the form of a Tuscan folk song known as a stornello and has an ABA form. Puccini inserts a dramatic foretaste of Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro,” dropping in four bars of swirling and swelling strings announcing the wondrous theme before the second theme. Puccini’s nod to the beauty that’s set to arrive with Lauretta should have been a musical moment that sent joy-filled wiggles down the spines of the audience, but the drama just wasn’t there. Looking at the score, Puccini’s dynamic markings for the passage stipulates fortissimo with a crescendo on the third bar followed by a drop to forte. Rothman seemed to keep everything at fortissimo. The absence of the swell undercut the soul-stirring dramatic force of the passage.
Throw in a few missed cues throughout the production, and it wasn’t a good afternoon in the pit, unfortunately.
Going for Laughs
“Gianni Schicchi” is an ensemble opera that has brilliant moments of comedy. The opera’s librettist Giovacchino Forzano took a single line from Dante’s “Inferno” and from it wrote an uproarious little opera. There’s not much subtext or subtlety to the story; everything sits right at the top—greed isn’t good, and there’s always someone out there ready to outsmart the unscrupulous at their own game.
Thankfully, this is where the Brooklyn College Opera Theatre got it right, focusing on keeping things simple with regards to the story’s themes.
The singer/actors, 16 in total within in the Brooklyn College Opera Theatre production—one less than the 17 written by Forzano—did an excellent job playing for laughs.
Comedic highlights included the aforementioned onstage croaking of Buoso followed by the relatives stuffing his corpse in a nearby wardrobe, the door of which would swing open at importune times.
Later, in a fit of anger, Zita stood on a chair and hurled the dead Buoso’s bottles of medication at Schicchi. Schicchi later wields the same chair weapon-like as Buoso’s relatives plunder the residence. There was even a bit of bathroom humor as Dr. Spinellocchio asks if Buoso had a bowel movement. After being handed the bedpan, the doctor proceeds to take a good sniff and pronounces it good—something not found in the libretto by Forzano.
While there were, at times, a bit of stock operatic hand waving, the ensemble played off one another well. The cast had fun, and their antics were a bright spot for sure.
Since “Gianni Schicchi” isn’t a numbers piece, it’s tough for a particular singer to blow the doors off the audience. However, tenor Thomas Massey’s voice was outstanding. In “Firenze è come un albero fiorito,” his tone was rich, strong, and stately as he marched regally through the first section of the stornello. Massey’s color was heroic to the point of making him the hero in what is an otherwise heroless opera. His was a clarion call as he sang of the beauty and wonder of Florence, reminding his old-monied family that many who made the city great had been newcomers like the Schicchi’s. Massey’s top-of-register lead in to the interstitial nod to “O mio babbino caro” was solid in cueing up what should have been one of the most dramatic moments of the score if only Rothman had stirred the orchestra to rise to the occasion.
That then brings us to one of the most beautiful and famous pieces in the opera canon, Lauretta’s aria “O mio babbino caro.” Soprano Nour Darwish’s performance of the piece was underwhelming. “O mio babbino caro” is a literal show-stopper, but Darwish’s rendition felt as though she was holding back to the extent that it felt almost mezza voce. Later on, however, her bright and vibrant tone could be heard above the boisterous ensemble, and when singing the final duet, “Lauretta mia, staremo sempre qui,” Darwish sang splendidly with her voice matching the power of Massey’s. Had such a confident display come during the signature piece of the opera, her performance would have been as notable as Massey’s.
However, all fault cannot be pinned on Darwish. “O mio babbino caro” was not one of the orchestra’s finest moments. The tuning was quite off, and that did Darwish no favors. To leave the theater without hearing a spine-tingling rendition of “O mio babbino caro” was frustrating.
Alan Briones Gianni Schicchi lacked the fox-like cunning inherent in the character. There wasn’t a sense that he was fully invested in the role. The singer/actor needed to show up with enough oomph in his acting to rise above and claim his place as the memorable antihero, but that didn’t happen. There were times when playing the part of the dead Buoso, Briones seemed to forget he should employ the nasally, whining voice of the deceased. While it’s standard practice for Schicchi to blurt out in a deep voice, “Gianni Schicchi!” when allocating Buoso’s most prized assets to himself, Briones slipped in and out of the mimicry.
There’s little to ding about Briones’ singing. His baritone was full, deep, and weighty enough for the part, and he sounded confident and in command of his instrument. So, the knock on the baritone is more for his acting than anything else.
The ensemble brought the laughs and held the production together as it wobbled on the rails.
Brooklyn College Opera Theatre’s Achille’s heal was its inability to mount a production that embodied the idea of opera as a complete art form. The singing aspect is crucial, but so is the acting, the scenography, and the orchestra. All must work together if an enthralling performance is to occur. Should one of those pieces be subpar, or missing altogether, a loose thread gets pulled, and a production will unravel at an alarming pace.
Such was the case with “Gianni Schicchi” in Brooklyn.