For the opening of its 30th anniversary season, the LA Opera has turned to Hollywood for a 2 hour and 40 minute double bill: Woody Allen’s production of “Gianni Schicchi” and Franco Zeffirelli’s “Pagliacci.” The Chandler was packed for opening night, long gowns in profusion, and the crowd justifiably primed to be entertained. In addition the Los Angeles Opera audience got a double dose of its favorite elixir, Placido Domingo, first as “Gianni Schicchi,” then as conductor of the orchestra for “Pagliacci.”
Allen sets the tone, an old-fashioned movie screen with “Prosciutto and Meloni” as producers, and other silly credits. It was the charming early Woody Allen at his early, untortured best. The set for “Gianni Schicchi” is almost like a black and white movie. Costumes are vaguely late 1940’s. Later Woody Allen films are known for their meticulous scenic detail, but the set for this short Puccini opera appears replete with details lost on the majority of the audience who were seated behind the first few rows. At times the monochromatic busyness and flat lighting made it hard to sort out who was singing. But never mind, a good time was had by all.
The audience responded warmly to the foolishness of the Florentine Donati family who has just learned the rumor that their dying patriarch has left his considerable wealth to a monastery. As he lies gasping his last breath young Rinuccio (Arturo Chacon-Cruz) comes up with a plan: consult with Gianni Schicchi (Placido Domingo), the father of the woman he wants to marry, despite his family’s considerable objections Rinuccio presents Schicchi to his family as being very clever. But Schicchi is –horror of horrors — nouveau riche and — in Donati minds — a country bumpkin to boot. Rinuccio’s aunt is none too pleased with her nephew for wanting to marry the daughter — Lauretta (Andriana Chachman) — of this unworthy person. Undeterred Rinuccio brings Schicchi who out foxes them all, though this being opera, in the end there is no rest for the wicked.
To all appearances the “Gianni Schicchi” company relishes its roles and is exceptionally well cast. Sadly the Founders’ overhang made it difficult to fully enjoy Andriana Chachman’s delicate tones in “O mio babbino caro.”
Zeffirelli’s “Pagliacci” has been a Los Angeles favorite since 1996. The circus is coming to a small town in Italy. Never mind that Zeffirelli’s village and circus seem outsized for their real life counterparts, the two circus/town scenes are over-the-top entertainment. Marvelous acrobats propel themselves across the stage and back; a clown on extra long stilts juggles down a ramp. There is the requisite unicycle, someone on roller blades, a mule, a classic convertible. It is a circus of Los Angeles proportions. What’s not to like?
But as befits all stories of clowns, “Pagliacci,” beneath it all, is a tragedy. Canio (Marco Berti), leader of the circus and Pagliacci the clown in the circus, tries to possess his beautiful wife, Nedda (Ana Maria Martinez), through intimidation. She wants only to be free and is in love with Silvio (Liam Bonner). The stage is set, both in the story and the play within the play — the circus performance — for a tragic end. Soprano Ana Maria Martinez is especially compelling as the beautiful, trapped, Nedda. Unlike Chachman the overhang presents no challenge for her.
Together the two small operas make for a satisfying evening of entertainment. Stravinsky is reported to have said, “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” A double feature is one way around that and a couple of Hollywood producers enhance the productions with their bold strokes.