MOT’s ‘Gianni Schicchi’ and ‘Buoso’s Ghost’ a wonderful pairing
DETROIT – Most of us will recognize the iconic Puccini aria “O mio babbino caro” from commercials, movies and even TV talent shows. But fewer know that it comes from the seldom performed one-act comedy, Gianni Schicchi. Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT) pairs this delightful piece with a modern sequel, Buoso’s Ghost, that features music and libretto by present-day composer Michael Ching. Together, they make for a perfect evening’s entertainment. We will go so far as to say we can no longer imagine the first being performed without the second.
The double-bill is performed at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts as part of MOT’s commitment to expanding opera into regional communities. The production also serves as a showcase for the spectacular talents of the MOT Studio Artists: tenor Edward Graves as Rinuccio; baritone Darren Drone as the eponymous Gianni Schicchi, and Avery Boettcher as Lauretta. All three shine brightly in these effervescent pieces, with Boettcher delivering the featured aria with perfect tones and genuine sweetness. Graves’ has a gem of an aria himself – delivered from the foot of the dead man’s bed – and was especially charming in the duos with Boettcher. Darren Drone, as the wiley Schicchi, proved he has the chops, the charisma, and the comedic nuance to excel in this role. We’d love to see him as Figaro.
The two operas also feature two gifted former MOT Studio Artists – Joseph Michael Brent as Gherardo and Harry Greenleaf as Marco. Other local performers include Diane Schoff, whose vocals and comedic delivery as Zita are up to her usual high standards. It’s so rewarding to watch this wonderful cast work together, as many of the complex vocal arrangements have them all singing at once and without apparent effort. Frank Pitts is Simone, Olivia Johnson is La Ciesca, Nicole Joseph is Nella, Jesús Vicente Murillo is Betto, Cooper Bush is Gheradino, MOT chorus member Fred Buchalter is both Spinelloccio and Guccio, David Moan is Amantio, and Adrian Leskiw is Pinellino. Conductor David Aronson delivers an excellent performance from the singers and sparkling orchestra.
Although Puccini set Gianni Schicchi in 1299 Florence, this MOT production is pushed forward to 1939, and Buoso’s Ghost picks up minutes after the first opera ends, using all of the same characters and a couple new ones. Puccini’s title character, Gianni Schicchi, is something of confidence man. He’s actually pulled right out of the Divine Comedy, where Dante encounters him serving time in a circle of hell for diverting the inheritance of a wealthy Florentine, Buoso Donati, into his own pockets. In Puccini’s opera, Buoso Donati dies in the company of his extensive family who are over eager to get their paws on the old man’s money. When he dies, leaving everything to the nearby monastery, the family is outraged. Rinuccio, nephew of the deceased, is sadden because he had hoped to marry Gianni Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretto. Without an inheritance, the Donati family will require him to marry for money. Rinuccio knows Schicchi is a clever man and enlists his help. Schicchi wants nothing to do with the Donati clan, but his daughter pleads for his help, so that she can marry Rinuccio (O mio babbino caro). What’s a father to do, except resurrect the deceased, rewrite the will, clear the path for true love, and name himself the new heir. The opera ends as Gianni Schicchi addresses the audience and asks for clemency, since he acted under ‘extenuating circumstances.’ The applause of the audience suggests agreement; the course of true love deserves our help.
Michael Ching’s opera, Buoso’s Ghost, opens where Gianni Schicchi left off … even echoing the musical themes … but switching from Italian to English. The young lovers sing joyfully about the life they’ll enjoy together. But the scheming Donati family is already plotting revenge on Schicchi, who suspects Buoso did not die of natural causes. Once again, our unlikely hero must muster all his wits to trap the vultures in their own net. The plot twists are inventive but totally consistent with Puccini, and Ching resolves multiple problems in one quick, gorgeously sung act. In a nod to Puccini, Ching has Gianni Schicchi walk downstage at the end and ask the audience to pardon the ‘upstart composer’ for presuming to write a sequel to the Puccini masterpiece.
In a pre-show chat, director Richard Gammon spoke about the joy of working with cast members who are already colleagues and primed for work that demands a strong ensemble performance. Indeed, the music may be high-brow, but the comedy is not. Gammon has his characters clambering over, under and around the deceased’s body in search of his will. Their murderous greed, leavened only by a fear of being caught and punished, is a constant source of mirth.
As a wink to the play’s origin in the Divine Comedy, a portrait of Dante graces the wall of the deceased’s bedroom and a bas-relief of the Florence skyline hangs behind the bed. Both the lush set, with its raked stage (Laura Fine Hawkes) and the beautiful period costumes (Susan Memmott Allred) were designed for the Utah Opera Company.
This is a lovely laugh fest. The only sad thing about this ‘two-fer’ production is that it’s been given only two performances, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. We can hope that someday MOT will bring it back for a longer run.