By Bill Hirschman
Is there anything quite as vicariously entertaining as watching a pack of greedy scoundrels circling around each other, maneuvering to snatch from each other what isn’t theirs to begin with?
Giacomo Puccini certainly thought not, as does composer Michael Ching, as does Florida Grand Opera, which is presenting such a rogue’s gallery turning on itself in Puccini’s one-act broad comedy Gianni Schicchi and Ching’s 1997 English-language one-act comic sequel Buoso’s Ghost playing in Miami and at the Broward Center through Feb. 11.
It should go without saying that the music is full and rich in this FGO production, both the master’s and that of his great admirer Ching, beautifully delivered by the cast’s resonating voices and the strong, deft orchestra conducted by Ching.
The production directed by Mo Zhou is suffused with humorous touches; her cast is clearly having a great time playing just one millimeter short of leaping over-the-top with plenty of eye-popping, grimaces and vaudevillian physicality.
Taken from six lines in Dante’s Inferno and extrapolated on real people, Puccini set his tale in 1299 in Florence where the wealthy extended Donati family is waiting for patriarch Buoso to die in his bed. Their mourning histrionics are clearly a fraud; they just want to read his will and they are tearing the bedroom apart trying to find it. But when he dies, the will leaves everything to the church.
So the gang hires the title character (his name is pronounced like a modern day gangster Johnny Skeekee), a conscienceless fixer from the countryside whose daughter Lauretta wants to marry Donati scion Rinuccio. When the notary comes to officiate the death, Schicchi pretends to be Buoso near death and rewrites the will. This is hardly the last round of deceit and depravity to come.
The score, of course, is lovely, but it is best known for Lauretta’s appeal to her father about how she loves Rinuccio, the aria ‘O mio babbino caro,” which has been appropriated on its own in a dozen films, sitcoms, TV cartoons, and even the video game Grand Theft Auto. It’s given a fully-realized rendition by soprano Page Michels who was in last season’s Fellow Travelers.
Using the same cast, set and orchestra, Ching picks up the story moments after Puccini’s librettist Giovacchino Forzano ended his. Schicchi is now owner of the best part of the estate including the house with the dead Buoso still in his bed. He discovers the likelihood that the family poisoned their uncle, setting off a criminal investigation that the family points at Schicchi. But no one outwits the expert at conniving, manipulating and blackmailing.
Both pieces are supposedly satirical indictments of greed, but since (spoiler alert) the conscienceless Gianni ends up with a huge grin in his face and a new set of riches at the end of each act, you wonder if you’re supposed to admire his resourcefulness, ingenuity and his self-constructed rise from being a country newcomer to a wealthy urban Florentine.
This was among the last full pieces Puccini wrote (someone finished Turandot for him) and his only comedy. But you can hear his love for assigning motifs to characters, even a droll satire of the sound of mourning when the Donati family pretends to bemoan the loss of their “loved one.”
We’ve said this before – and perhaps it’s obvious to opera fans – but his work here and that of his contemporaries suffuse the great movie soundtracks of the 1940s and 1950s, for instance Bernard Hermann’s Hitchcock films such as North By Northwest.
Ching has composed 15 operas in an eclectic array of styles, inserting quotes echoing pop, jazz and musical theater. In this, there’s even a phrase of clip-clop Western movie soundtrack. Puccini’s piece is sung through except to give the audience a chance to applaud once at the end of ‘O mio babbino caro.’ But Ching has written duets and solos and group numbers with beginnings and endings like in a Broadway musical. He also wrote the lyrics, some of which rhyme and some don’t bother.
Still, Ching has successfully echoed Puccini’s tone throughout, making it seem that the genius would have written this if he was alive today. And he certainly maintained Puccini’s humor with such lyrics as the Donatis plea “We never said we liked you. We always meant to.” There’s even a whiff of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.
Ching worked for four years early in his career on the staff of FGO’s forebear, the Greater Miami Opera. Now 64, he makes his FGO debut as a flamboyant figure in the pit: dressed in a beach shirt, head almost over the orchestra railing, his arms easily visible flying through the air and guiding trills with vibrating hands in a bright light.
As always, the orchestra was superb, although occasionally it drowned out the ensemble members, especially when they had solo lines.
Obviously, the evening’s driver is Franco Pomponi who is having the time of his life as the wily Gianni. He not only lets loose his rich baritone, but also a constricted whine when impersonating the dead Buoso.
Tenor Charles Calotta is a handsome Rinuccio more interested in Lauretta than the money; mezzo Robynne Redman is the substantial chief Donati venality Zita.
Appearing but never singing throughout is Larry Kamin, actually a board member who reportedly has never missed a production, who delivers an award worthy performance lying motionless and voiceless in the four-poster as the dead Buoso.
The lush multi-layered garments by Howard Tsvi Kaplan, the period perfect bedroom set by Eric Renschler and the lighting reflecting the changes as the day wears on by Mary Ellen Stebbins are all on loan from a production by the Chautauqua Opera for FGO’s 81st season.
Note: As in the past, Florida /Grand Opera hosts a free half-hour talk one hour before curtain in which a knowledgeable staffer provides the background of the piece, its origin and context, a synopsis, and advice on what to listen for. Currently, the host is the affable, informative Matt Cooksey, director of artistic operations and director of the coming The Barber of Seville, who at one point serenaded the attendees with a snatch of ‘O mio babbino caro.. Unless you have a ton of esoteric knowledge yourself, these talks are well worth showing up for early.
Gianni Schicchi from the Florida Grand Opera plays 8 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 and 11 at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Au-Rene Theater, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Running time 2 hours 15 minutes including one 20-minute intermission. Tickets $23-$228, by calling (800) 741-1010 or visiting www.FGO.org.