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Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi



Gun-Brit Barkmin, Michael König, Alan Held  (background) in A Florentine Tragedy (Photo: Michael Cooper)

One Almost, One Win
The COC double-bill is a great idea that (almost) works perfectly
by Axel Van Chee

I will admit that the double billed A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi currently playing
at The Canadian Company is, personally, my most anticipated opera event this season. And
I will also admit that it is times like this I am glad we do not use a star rating system. You see, I LOVE Zemlinsky, and this is one of his pieces that I have listened to for years but never actually seen on stage. And to be billed with Gianni Schicchi is quite an ingenious move on the part of the company since both operas are set in Florence, written at approximately the same time (A Florentine Tragedy being composed a year earlier, so coincidentally, the double bill actually plays out in chronological order), and the two operas represent very distinct musical lineages. What plays out over the next two hours is something I was not expecting: a musically ravishing but dramatically uneven Tragedy, and the complete opposite for Gianni Schicchi.

A Florentine Tragedy
It is unfortunate that the only time most people encounter the music of Alexander Zemlinsky nowadays is in a vocal recital, sung together with music by other Russian composers, even though Zemlinsky is really an Austrian or, some may even argue, an American. More known for his lieder and tonal poems, Zemlinsky’s operas have almost disappeared entirely from the operatic repertoire not just in North America, but around the world. His only champion in recent history has been James Conlon at the Los Angeles Opera, who has been reintroducing his music under the “Recovered Voices” project, a program dedicated to performance of operas by composers persecuted by the Third Reich. Two of his operas, A Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf are set to Oscar Wilde’s plays, and it is interesting that Tragedy is chosen over The Dwarf considering the latter is often deemed the more developed of the two.

A Florentine Tragedy is essentially a cat and mouse game, and the director Catherine Malfitano’s version is a highly stylized, chiaroscuro affair. The use of the sharp contrasting light and darkness frames the 3 characters stunningly visually, but the darkness is often so dark that all the nuances of the physical performances: subtle glances, simple gestures, even the movement of the 3 characters, are lost. This really hinders the necessary build-up of tension within the opera because A Florentine Tragedy has very little action and is mostly a word game that leads to its conclusion. Yes, there are overt and obvious acts of domestic violence to show the context, but I am afraid that is only half the drama, it is all the little things that are missing. They are all there mind you, you just can’t see them because it’s so bloody dark. The film-noire-esque production is also often at odds with the the lush, meaty music, which makes the stage even colder than it really is. It is a classic case of legibility versus visuality. The latter won this round.
Musically, Sir Andrew Colins brings out all the drama and the different colours and texture of the score that is so intrinsic and vital to Zemlinsky whose operas are really an extension of his tonal poems. The orchestra plays with abandon, and the lush sound is like giant tidal waves, crushing and drowning out all the singers on stage except for Simone, sung by bass-baritone Alan Held who reminds me of Captain Ahab, holding his fort like a true champion. Gun-Brit Barkmin is an adequately alluring Bianca and Michael König is a clear voiced, park and bark Guido Bardi.

The ensemble of Gianni Schicchi (photo: Michael Cooper)

Gianni Schicchi
Gianni Schicchi on the other hand is quite a different beast. Inspired by a passage in Dante’s Divine Comedy, it is Puccini’s only comedy and probably one of his most beloved operas. The aria O mio babbino caro is also one of the most often performed soprano arias, and one doesn’t even have to have seen a single opera to have heard it. This is a short opera, and also I think, his most fiendishly difficult opera (short does not mean easy). And here is where the trouble lies: the musical writing for Schicchi is truly an ensemble piece, every line is built upon someone else’s line, when one starts to get loose, the rest starts to fall apart. On opening night, there were many such instances. Here I give great kudos to the cast, they certainly do not show it when things get a bit hairy, and to Sir Andrew Davis who repeatedly rescues the cast from possible disasters (I have seen one production in the past where the conductor had to stop the performance halfway to restart). The singing is good but uneven. Standouts include Barbara Dever’s fantastic Zita, Donato Di Stefano’s funny Simone, and Doug MacNaughton’s thick-tongued Spinellocio. René Barbera’s Rinuccio has youthful, bright upper tone and sometimes short-changes Puccini’s phrasing, but he certainly deserves a lot more applause than what he got on opening night. 

Dramatically, this Schicchi is a triumph for Malfitano. It is a true Italian farce: big emotions, big gestures, big appetites, big everything. And they all worked, in a big way. One cannot help but forgive all the mishaps and laugh at all the silly goings on: spilling of the chamber pot, fighting over the beer and pizza, and a hundred other details. The genius is also that it never feels overly busy and the cast carries it off with pizzazz.

The set by Wilson Chin serves both operas well. They frame the operas gracefully and are true to Malfitano’s visions. The final tableau of Gianni Schicchi is particularly breathtaking. Terese Wadden’s costumes adds the appropriate feeling and helps building additional layers to each of the characters in both operas. David Martin Jacques’s lighting in Gianni Schicchi is reminiscent of the Tuscan sun, golden, warm and carefree. 

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