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Farcing The Future

New York
Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater (155 West 65th Street)
04/27/2011 -  & April 29, May 1, 2011
Maurice Ravel: L’Heure espagnole
Giacomo Puccini Gianni Schicchi

Spencer Lang (Torquemada), Cecilia Hall (Concepción), Daniel T. Curran (Gonzalve/Rinuccio), Andreas Aroditis (Ramiro/Ser Amantio di Nicolao), Alexander Hajek (Don Inigo Gomez/Gianni Schicchi), Jung Nan Yoon (Lauretta), Lacey Jo Benter (Zita), Cullen Gandy (Gherardo), Catherine Hancock (Nella), Jackson Stenborg (Gherardino), Adam Richardson (Betto di Signa), Timothy Beenken (Simone), Will Liverman (Marco), Carla Jablonski (La Ciesca), Said Pressley (Maestro Spinelloccio), Drew Santini (Pinellino), Philip Stoddard (Guccio)
Juilliard Orchestra, Keri-Lynn Wilson, (Conductor)
Tomer Zvulun (Director), Donald Eastman (Set Designer), Vita Tzykun (Costume Designer), Jane Cox (Lighting Designer)

L’Heure espagnole (© Nan Melville)

Neither Giacomo Puccini nor Maurice Ravel are known as farceurs, but they both attempted to turn classical farce, into their own form of classical opera. To their great credit, neither composer changed personal styles. Ravel used his love of Spanish music for the Spanish story, Puccini came close to dripping bathos but retained those marvelous musical motifs to project the farcical elements. And while his story came from Dante, the plot could have been written by Ben Jonson, a rewriting of Volpone.

Unlike Gianni Schicchi, Ravel’s little masterpiece must be staged to be effective, and this was the first time I had actually seen it. Listening to a recording does little to show that this is the broadest kind of farce, while shaded in the usual muted Ravel orchestral colors.

After all, what serious (or at least très raffiné French composer would write about a buffoon husband, an amorous banker, a flighty poet, a muscular muleteer and a flirtatious wife doing silly hijinks in an 18th Century clock shop? One must see the actors climbing inside and outside of large clocks, hiding, jesting, sticking heads out for a quick "Coo-coo" before going upstairs for some bedroom hanky-panky.

And this is what Juilliard School produced in the first half of the pairing. Cuckoldism is a staple of 18th Century opera, and the staging can be buffoonish. Ravel’s music doesn’t call for blatant buffoonery, but it does call for wicked humor.

Donald Eastman’s very classy set gave all the musty bric-à-brac, with cumbersome clocks just big enough for lovers to hide in. The action was rapid, but within the limits of farce, quite logical, as hunky muleteer Andreas Aroditis wrestled with one clock after another (some holding lovers) up and down the steps. His pleasant baritone voice was a masculine rival to the two more effete would-be lovers, and he, even more than the flirty wife of the clockmaker, who conducted the situation.

Yet Cecilia Hall, in a Jezebel-red dress, was bossy enough, flighty enough, and in the one solo aria, speaking of "this pitiable adventure", she was a delight. Like all opera farces, the cast comes together at the end for a fitting ironic quintet (in this case, knowledge that the muleteer will pass by each morning for our delight), the five singers were each lightly delightful.

Gianni Schicchi (© Nan Melville)

Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson has a more substantial challenge in Gianni Schicchi, for Puccini welded brilliant music with a brilliant farcical story, and stage action that, unlike the Ravel, can be as frenetic as possible.

Again, Donald Eastman set the scene. The setting has been updated to a mid-20th Century venue. But this being Florence, the room still has a 16th Century look, lighting (changing in real time from a Velasquez-style day to black night). The four-poster bed should be the center of the stage, but it was placed rightly toward the back. This allows a), the cast of Florentine crazies to dance, frolic, romp, shout and scheme, and b) to allow that first scene of searching for a Last Will and Testament to spread the stage with masses of paper.

Those, though, were well worth chopping down a few trees for. The direction by Tomer Zvulun, allowed the relatives and hangers-on, dressed in the gaudiest bad taste, to mutter and moan about their situation.

What Ravel couldn’t do, Puccini did like the born opera-composer. Without stopping the farce, he produced some fine arias (or ariettes), the first sung by that impressive Daniel T. Curran extolling Florence itself. The most popular with sopranos is O mio babbino caro, sung by Schicchi’s daugther to her father.

I always felt that this was Puccini’s parody of the lush schmaltzy arias which are the rule for sopranos in his operas, and I always wanted it sung with massively excessive vibrato, others on the stage looking with tears in their eyes. But no, this is a serious piece, and Jung Nan Yoon gave it the melodious treatment it deserved.

As to the mischievous Gianni himself, we had a delightful Alexander Hajek (he who had played the playful obese banker in the Ravel) plotting with the others and commanding His arias were less impressive than his commands to the hoi-polloi, his delight in dressing and undressing for his ruse and for mocking the cast.

These were more caricatures than in Ravel, but Puccini, in this late opera, was so accomplished in his use of voices and orchestra, actually made the most wicked of them wholly enjoyable.

As were these farces themselves. Perhaps it takes a basically young cast and very young accomplished orchestra to give life to these operas. In that case, Juilliard succeeded, Ravel and Puccini might not be everybody’s idea of grand comedy, but with such inspired direction, their own inspirations were frivolously sensational.

Harry Rolnick



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