Opera Ithaca 2020 Review: Gianni Schicchi

An Prime Example of How Video Production & Social Distancing Can Work in Online Opera Performances

By Jennifer Pyron
(Photo credit: Opera Ithaca)

Diving headfirst into creating a film production of an opera in the middle of a pandemic is a risk that most companies might shy away from taking right now. Social distancing and the tedious task of troubleshooting with technology, video editing, and sound design are all vital factors that must be adhered to and mastered.

However, Opera Ithaca faced every challenge when they decided to rearrange a carefully planned 2020-2021 season and took their time by discovering that the key to moving the season forward was by taking one step at a time.

In their original film of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” Cinematographer David Kossack and the award-winning PhotoSynthesis Productions, explore how to benefit most from a cast that could roll with the times and brought to life an opera that had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in the midst of the 1918 Spanish flu. A fusion of past and present that examines with a narrowed eye more closely what our future stands for as artists and creators proved to be a prime choice for Artistic Director Ben Robinson to really sink his teeth into and bite deep into the heart of comic relief at its best through family drama à la Zoom.

Donati Zoom Session

Telling the story of each Donati family member through the use of Zoom’s video conferencing was taken to another level. Robinson’s decision to adhere to the closeness of this family, while remaining socially distant throughout was illustrated best with smart camera edits and alternating drone shots of Buoso Donati’s properties, including a still of his prized donkey.

By erratically jumping from one member to the next throughout the whole opera, the viewer had less of a chance to lose interest. The film’s momentum followed the developing storyline but most importantly gave new life to the story itself.

Opera Ithaca’s “Gianni Schicchi” encouraged no one to rest in the chaos, because the energy was intoxicating, light, and fun. Like a social media junky who loves to consume spirals of updates and tweets, this film whets the viewer’s appetite with comedic chaos in every moment. Robinson knows how to make a viewer ready to burst at the gut with good-humored laughter and wit.

When the Donati family sang about the friars benefiting from the will, the video editing cut to a bunch of chickens and hens running around on a farm and going crazy for food, with the heads of each member copied and pasted on top of the bird bodies. Everyone’s crisis mode was exaggerated on-screen but the vocal quality and level of performance never suffered.

Steve Sull, as Simone, blew out the candles of his mourning alter except for one that he saved to burn Donati’s photo. Emily Pulley, as Zita, tore her ponytail out and furiously grabbed her hair. Nicholas Davis, as Betto, poured himself another glass of whiskey even though his bottle was empty. And the list of outlandish behaviors continued to fuel the fun.

Daniel Bates, as Rinuccio, told the story of Gianni Schicchi while the video editing showed beautiful scenes of Florence. The choice to break away into these captivating moments was playful and set the stage for Gianni Schicchi’s introduction. Rinuccio is telling the very best perceived opinion of him and so it fell in line when the viewer watched these picturesque Italian shots. 

Non-Stop Energy

Quay Blanks as Gherardino was a quintessential young boy that ran around with high energy and mischievous intentions. Blanks was the perfect Gherardino for this production. One might have seen him as the comical thread of the video’s production and might go so far as to say he was the internal child of each family member vying to draw attention from the will. Either way, it was hilarious to watch him. Especially when he jumped on the bed with Buoso’s dead body still in it to retrieve his ball. Buoso’s body floated buoyantly on top of the mattress as the boy hurriedly jumped over him again and again. 

Elena Galván, as Lauretta, beautifully sang “O mio babbino caro” while on her bed pleading with Gianni Schicchi to allow her to marry Rinuccio. The red bedspread, small nightstand, lopsided lampshade and at-leisure wear that Galván was wearing shaped the aria in a playfully witty way. Galván sang with honesty and approachability. She was refreshing and brought back to life this very popular soprano aria. 

Dennis Jesse, as Gianni Schicchi, was brilliant and innovative. The video editing during his explanation about how he would impersonate Buoso Donati for the doctor’s visit showed his plan to create an avatar for Schicchi to use on Zoom. It was humorous to watch this opera comedy make fun of social media illusions that breed and cultivate delusional behaviors. 

As Gianni Schicchi prepared for his big impersonation of Buoso Donati the film blended everyone together into something reminiscent of a 1990’s music video by The Cranberries. Sarah Beckham-Turner, as Nella, gently tossed her hair and held a flower up to the camera. Showcasing a 90’s film nostalgia while the Donati family members begged Gianni Schicchi to give them the most power in the will was genius.

“Oh Gianni, oh Gianni, nostre salvatore”

“Oh Gianni, oh Gianni, our savior”

Making fun of the evilness and greed within the family also played into how one might currently view the political world we live in and how we too exist within a dark comedy that seeks to glorify a savior. Puccini knew how to speak directly to this observation of humanity and composed this opera that is still performed today with potency and pointedness.

Falling deeper into the hallucination of making a better world when not taking action to create this for ourselves. When nothing has changed in structural systems that perpetuate all that ushered us here in the first place. Complacency of consciousness and gluttonous gain for greed at its finest and most entertaining might lull one into perceiving this Puccini opera more intimately now than ever before. 


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