Twenty-minutes after the ethereal redemption which ended Suor Angelica I’m back in my seat applauding Maestro Joseph Marcheso as he makes his way to the podium. He well deserves the applause for the way he led the orchestra in perfect sync with the action and the singing through all the rapid swings of mood throughout the first opera. And with the crashing discords which begin the overture, we immediately know that the forthcoming mood will be drastically different from the emotional wringer we have just been through.
The discords are prophetic as the curtain rises to reveal the discordant Donati family, gathered together in the elegant Florence home of Buoso (Stephen Howes), the oldest and richest member of the clan who lies dying in his massive bed. In fact, most productions have him already dead, but Stage Director Lorna Haywood added a cute twist which fits equally well with the music. The family is wailing and mourning his imminent death when he suddenly sits up in bed, points to his throat as if he were trying to say something, and falls back dead.
The family now mourns loudly and competitively about how long they will cry, escalating from hours to all day to days, weeks, months, years, to (the winner) Forever. Said family consists of Buoso’s elderly cousins Simone (Silas Elash) and Zita (Patrice Houston), Zita’s nephew Rinuccio (Alexander Boyer), Buoso’s brother-in-law Betto di Signa (Rolfe Dauz) and his nephew Gherardo (Robert Norman) along with Gherardo’s wife and 7-year old son Nella (Elisabeth Russ) and Gherardino (Joshua Grzymala), and Simone’s nephew and wife Marco (Krassen Karagiozov) and La Ciesca (Rebecca Krouner).
When everyone is sure that Buoso is really dead, their eyes and their voices light up as they think of their likely inheritances. But a whispered rumor starts circulating about what “they are saying in the streets of Signa,” and faces begin to drop. Zita tries vainly to catch the whispers and finally corners Betto with an imperious demand to hear all. At which point she and the others (and we, the audience) learn that the rumor is that Buoso’s will disinherits his whole family and leaves everything to the friars of a monastery!
Consternation, chaos, and pandemonium. It is inconceivable that rumor be true. The will must be found and the rumor proved false. Mad rushing about in random uncoordinated searching for the will. They even roll the body around searching the bedclothes. The genius of Puccini is that his music perfectly matches all of this slapstick activity. To get the most out of this scene, we must keep both eyes and ears fully alert.
Eventually Rinuccio finds the will. “Give it to me and I will read it,” Zita demands imperiously. (Zita, by the way, is played by Patrice Houston whom we saw earlier as the Princess – that singer knows how to be imperious). But Rinuccio holds it out of reach: “Not so fast, Aunt Zita. Since we’re all going to be rich, can I marry Lauretta on the first of May?” “Marry whoever you want, but give me that will.” He does – and then quietly gives Gherardino (Joshua Grzymala) and his pal Antonio (James Costigan) a couple of coins to run to Gianni Schicchi and tell him to immediately come to Buoso’s house with his daughter Lauretta. Antonio appears to be another clever invention by stage director Haywood. Somehow two 7-year old boys completely oblivious to all of the adult turmoil seems more natural than just one.
Zita wastes no time reading the will, first with eager anticipation, then with growing dismay. Finally she hurls it to the floor and moans, “It’s true. Every last penny goes to the Friars.”
Another slapstick scene with the entire family pacing around the room in a sort of Conga line with everyone asking everyone else “what can we do?” and no one having any answers. Eventually they become exhausted and slump down, dejected and quiet. At which point Rinuccio says there is only man in all Florence who can help us: Gianni Schicchi. The family is horrified. “What! Consult with a Commoner about our most intimate family affairs? No way!”
But before you know it, Gherardino has returned and Gianni Schicchi (Zachary Altman) is in the room along with his daughter Lauretta (Cecilia Violetta López). Rinuccio asks him to find a way to negate the will, but Schicchi takes umbrage when Zita insults him. He says he wants nothing to do with this gang of snobs and forbids Lauretta from having anything more to do with them. To most of Florence Schicchi appears to he hard-hearted and selfish, but to his daughter he’s a pussycat. In the lovely song Oh! mio babbino caro (Oh! My beloved Daddy), she pleads with him to help the Donatis so she can marry the man she loves, he melts like wax and agrees to try.
Schicchi studies the will and frowns. “Hm, nothing can be done.” Gloom descends. “You’re the smartest man in Florence,” Rinuccio says. “Surely you can think of something.” Schicchi studies some more, frowns again, and shakes his head as the family waits with bated breath and the music helps build the mounting tension. Slowly his frown disappears and is replaced with a smug smile. He sends his daughter out of the room – alone – so she won’t hear his nefarious scheme, then unveils it to the Donatis.
No one knows that Buoso is dead so he, Schicchi, will take his place and dictate a new will. Everyone is delighted with the scheme, but Schicchi warns them, “It’s highly illegal; if we are found out , our right hands will be cut off and we will be forever exiled from Florence.” He emphasizes this by tucking his right hand inside its sleeve and waving it about as if it were a bloody stump.
Come see one of the remaining performances to see how it all plays out. A couple of things you might want to notice, particularly if you see Cast 1 (the performance I’m reviewing). Zachary Altman is outstanding in the title role, both in singing and in acting. In his makeup he is far from handsome, but he has a matter-of-fact diffidence that I found most appealing. Alex Boyer has an outstanding voice as I have mentioned more than once in previous reviews. As Rinuccio he has a simple smile that marks him with a naïve innocence of the evils in the world – he’s in love and that’s all that matters. As for Cecilia Violetta López - . . . I remarked earlier that 20 minutes was barely long enough for me in the audience to switch moods between the two operas; she from her infinitely closer involvement on the stage had only a few minutes longer to change her whole personality from the unhappy nun to a starry-eyed innocent teenager in love – but she did it most convincingly.
My review is based on seeing Cast 1, but knowing Opera San José I am confident that I will equally enjoy hearing Cast A when I go again this Sunday, April 21.
Rather than give you the details of how Schicchi’s plot works out, I just say that it ended up with him in possession of a large portion of the estate – including the house in Florence which he will give to Rinuccio and Lauretta as a wedding present. He also has the last word, spoken directly to the audience as he points to the embracing young couple:
Could Buoso's wealth have gone to better ends than this? For this prank, Dante has condemned me to Hell but with all due respect, if you have been amused, grant me extenuating circumstances!
We answered with standing applause as the curtain descended.
All photos by Pat Kirk