Helensvale Cultural Centre
Saturday November 30
Any company takes quite a risk when attempting Puccini’s last completed opera and his only comedy; not because Gianni Schicchi is hard to handle vocally, but more because of the requirement to keep the humour intact and consistent. Fortunately, Doug Gehrke‘s direction of the work with this Gold Coast ensemble found the laughs and kept them coming, mercifully restrained at the climax where the hero outwits the rest of the cast. I’ve seen (and heard) better casts in terms of vocal endowment and enjoyed more flashy productions as far as sets and costumes go, yet this presentation left you more than satisfied that you’d come close to the core of this dressed-up true story.
Schicchi is the ultimate con-man: hired by disdainful clients, doing the job, then coming out on top through an admirable volte-face that shows up pretty well everyone else on stage. Many of us have become used to a very broad level of humour (that can amount to slapstick) applied to this opera – gesture-dependent with characterizations exaggerated to the near-ludicrous and with vocalization torques to match, along with busy orchestras unable to patch their dynamic into the stage’s output. Several of these problems raised their heads at this Saturday matinee but were not significantly abrasive in effect to ruffle the work’s progress.
Fortunately for the company, baritone Daniel Smerdon fitted the lead role with excellent panache and a welcome forthrightness of application that every so often found him working almost too hard. Forget the silly carry-on that typifies pretty well every Schicchi you come across with the disguised Schicchi’s repeated Addio, Firenze warnings and the accompanying missing hand mime; a really fine interpreter can keep your attention in difficult territory, like the longish monologue where the central deceit is being set up. From his perusal of the discovered will, the quizzing of the relatives, that jubilant exclamation of Ah! Vittoria! vittoria!, then right through the pages from Si corre dal notaio to da afidar l’eternita!, Smerdon sustained our interest, playing out his vocal line’s expressive possibilities and its springing text with the sort of fluency you’d expect to find from a member of a good quality opera house.
Along with the expected changes of mood after his first entrance, Smerdon later came into his own with the final address to the audience, Dittemi voi, signore; here, sensibly given in English as a deft gesture of audience connection, untrammelled by the surtitle screen which had given a fair, if not complete, translation of Forzano’s libretto.
(As an aside, you have to compliment the cast on their textual fidelity; on very few occasions did you feel that the words were being parroted or that a Strine filter was getting in the way. But then, these days you’re justified in expecting most Australians to be familiar with more than their native tongue; even the Prime Minister can talk in English and in tongues.)
Among the Donati clan, one of the most comfortable in her role was Gaynor Morgan as Zita who showed no fear in the work’s first half where her character dominates the family’s reactions. Also carrying their characters’ emotional and vocal responsibilities with success were two basses: Vikram Goonawardena playing the senior of the family, ex-Mayor Simone, with an appealingly low-level self-importance; and Kristian Scott as Betto di Signa who carved out a clarion-clear exposition of the mourners’ problem from an apologetic Lo dicono a Signa to a firm declaration of the same rumour that sets his family members into a fury of angry dispossession.
Some presentations underplay this work’s more static passages but it was very pleasing to see the director give adequate space for that seductive trio E bello/Fa’ presto/Spogliati from Morgan’s Zita, Tania Vadeikis as La Ciesca and Sara Donnelly as Nella, all cosseting their universally acclaimed saviour in a sudden oasis of calm. It is actually quite a silly passage even if it cleverly sets up Schicchi’s warning of the dangers involved in faking a will. But these three mixed voices melded together in an appealing combination – a moment of sweetness before all three turn into harpies when they explode after the notary’s exit.
John Nicholson sang a good Rinuccio although he does not yet have a sufficiently strong production for maintaining his high notes once he has reached them. The aria Firenze e come un albero fiorito showed signs of stress as the singer attempted to cope with the exuberance of the young man’s declamatory phrase saldie torri snelle that concludes the first verse; and Nicholson was unable to hold on to the final B flat for its minim-plus-a-quaver length. Still, those self-indulgent duets with Melanie Smart’s Lauretta where the young lovers sing melting farewells to future happiness proved more effective, if not that supple in phrasing.
Smart’s soprano has a thoroughly appropriate lightness of vocal colour for roles like this naive and eminently biddable girl. But it does come as a shock to be reminded that Lauretta is so young, a 21-year-old who should have no trouble spontaneously falling to her knees to plead with her father. We’ve become accustomed to hearing O mio babbino caro out of context and taken on by big voices like Fleming and Te Kanawa who impose their own tempi and expression markings; it makes a huge difference to hear it sung as written – without swoops, sudden dynamic lunges and gratuitous portamenti – so that the simplicity of the aria’s appeal – to us and to Schicchi – is manifest. Yes, Smart still has a fair amount of development to undergo by way of honing a solid timbre, but the possibilities are evident.
The few remaining cast members carried out their responsibilities without problems – Geof Webb as Gherardo, Aric Kruger as a pretty unobtrusive Marco, Ben Underwood milking the reedy role of Maestro Spinellaccio, Tom Lawson playing a circumspect Ser Amantio notary, and Zander Engel-Bowe as Gherardino, getting abused with little respite by various adults. What you had to find impressive was the accurate response rate in the opera’s many recitative chains (I heard only one premature entry) and the laudably full-bodied and well-centred choral ensemble work.
Before the original opera got under way, a chorus of about nine female singers gave us a gratuitous Ave Maria which I suspect came from the opening to Suor Angelica, the opera in Puccini’s Il trittico that precedes Gianni Schicchi. Why was it sung, wherever it came from? The hymn didn’t add anything to the matinee’s focal work and certainly nonplussed more than a few audience members who came into the Helensvale Centre’s theatre/studio prepared for a comedy.
The production was advertised as having an orchestra in support. As things turned out, the orchestra was a sextet – violin, cello, flute/oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano – all anonymous and under the direction of Nicholas Routley: the only person in this whole enterprise whom I’d encountered previously. This instrumental group presented a fairly solid chamber version of a score that, for half of its length, eschews the full Romantic sweep of Puccini at his most grandiose. Even with these limited instrumental resources, you gleaned some idea of the original’s whimsicality and bitonal spikiness.
As for the scenery/costumes/lighting factors, nothing obtruded as outlandish or even, in the characters’ dress, related to the work’s intended setting: Florence in 1299; indeed, the cast wore garb that wouldn’t have attracted much attention outside the theatre. Adam Smart and Craig Vadeikas’ set allowed plenty of space for the Donati personalities to group and disband according to the plot’s movement. without over-playing the opera’s fundamental Tuscan locale which was limited to a central backdrop picture of the Duomo. So the penultimate scene, where Schicchi’s new house is stripped by indignant failed legatees, came off unexpectedly well with just enough materiel available for pillaging without the stage picture degenerating to the ridiculous.
Of course, you had to make allowances for this presentation which in some respects operated on a bare-bones framework, viz. orchestral/pit support and amateurs occupying some of the minor roles. But, thanks to a clarity of direction from both Gehrke and Routley, the piece maintained its theatrical and musical integrity, racing past with plenty of vim and making its points about the human condition – our venality, hypocrisy, capacity for love, delight in comeuppances – and doing so by employing few other mechanisms than Puccini’s vital score and Forzano’s splendidly pointed dialogue.