In the southern reaches of the Rossini Festival last weekend, the UT Opera Theatre entertained its share of operagoers with two one-acts of widely diverse content: Puccini's comedy, Gianni Schicchi, and Stephen Paulus' The Village Singer.
The premise of Gianni Schicchi is often adapted to locales other than the 14th Century one that Puccini and his librettist, Giovacchino Forzano used. Director Carroll Freeman plunked his Schicchi down in a 1950s neo-Gothic ranch outside Las Vegas with the obvious implication that the owner, Buoso Donati, has some kind of mob affiliation.
As the opera traditionally begins, Donati is dying in his bed. Freeman's staging has the less-than-teary relatives, anxious for inheritance, making attempts to speed up his demise by various comically vicious means of increasing severity. Unfortunately, upon finding the departed's will, the relatives learn that Donati has left most of his wealth to the church, excluding his family from their rewards. To extricate them from their difficulty, Rinuccio, a Donati nephew, suggests that they send for the clever Gianni Schicchi (in this case a local used-car salesman and con-artist). Schicchi arrives and presents his plan: impersonate the now-expired old man and dictate a new will. Unfortunately, he pulls another con posing as Donati, tricks the relatives, and leaves the wealth to "his good friend, Gianni Schicchi."
The wonderful ensemble cast, with some roles split over the performances, threads their way through a deliciously constricted, even claustrophobic, bedroom set that makes their dilemma and confrontations all the more believable. Singing the role of Gianni Schicchi was the solid Jesse Stock, who looked quite the part of a red-neck used-car salesman. However, Schicchi's daughter, Lauretta, must butter up her father to undertake the charade, and she does so in the lovely and familiar aria "O mio babbino caro." Both Laurettas, Jessica Cates and Rachel Ann Moore, were marvelous.
Donati's closest relatives, Zita and Simone, were sung by Leah Serr and Andrew Gilchrist, respectively. In addition, Gilchrist's aging Simone had the wonderfully comic task of pushing a walker around the tight bedroom set. In a nicely executed bit, Serr's marvelous Zita led the relatives in the comic, but silently expressive, reading of the will. Young Rinuccio, the would-be fiancée of Lauretta, was sung by the excellent Stefan Barner. The remainder of the not-so-grieving relatives were Nicholas Gulick as Gherardo; Anna Eschbach and Sarah Hoeppner as Nella; Rocky Sellers as Betto; Seth Maples as Simone's son Marco; and Denisha Ballew and Whitney Hansen as La Ciesca, Marco's wife.
The Village Singer, the second opera on the double bill, by the contemporary composer Stephen Paulus, is based on a short story by Mary Wilkins Freeman.
There is much to like in this 1979 piece commissioned by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Paulus' orchestration is wonderfully evocative of the Maine setting in an expressionist sort of way. His vocal modernism, though, fresh and refreshingly different in 1979, seems a tad stale in 2010.
The story involves Candace Whitcomb, the long-time soloist in a village church choir in Maine. At a choir party, she is given a photo album of her time with the choir which she later discovers also contains a letter telling her, untactfully, that her services as soloist will no longer be required. Her replacement is to be a younger singer, Alma Way, who is, unfortunately, the fiancée of her nephew, Wilson Ford. Whitcomb, who lives next door to the church, takes her revenge by opening her windows during church services and offering her own hymns in competition with Miss Way.
I have nothing but total admiration for Amanda Peavyhouse, who possessed a remarkable vocal stamina as a wonderful Candace Whitcomb and brought a skillful irony to her ending bedroom scene. Evan Broadhead sang the role of William Emmons, the choir director, and Cody Boling sang Reverend Pollard. Erik Lickiss sang the role of the nephew, Wilson Ford. The role of the younger singer, Alma Way, was sung marvelously by Valerie Haber and Paige Patrick in split casting.
The Bijou's intimate acoustics were tamed beautifully by Maestro James Fellenbaum and Rachel Grubb conducting the UT Opera Orchestra.