Giacomo Puccini has given us some of music’s most sublimely crafted operatic melodies and captivating theatrical moments. Yet among those moments there is precious little to make one genuinely laugh. Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and La Bohéme stand at the pinnacle of opera, but they are masterpieces of tragedy with death as the outcome. But it is also a death that opens Puccini’s one real comedy, the one-act Gianni Schicchi—but that death is one with a decidedly comedic slant. As part of the Rossini Festival this weekend, the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre offers Gianni Schicchi on a double bill along with a second one-act opera, The Village Singer, by the contemporary composer Stephen Paulus.
Puccini wrote Gianni Schicchi as one of a triple bill of one-act operas titled Il Trittico, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1918. The other two are Suor Angelica (“Sister Angelica”) and Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”). Despite the grouping, the operas are independently themed, and are as often as not performed separately.
Although Puccini and his librettist, Giovacchino Forzano, set Gianni Schicchi in 13th-century Florence, productions often alter the setting. Stage director Carroll Freeman has updated the locale to 1950s Las Vegas. Yet the premise remains—as the curtain rises, a rich man, Buoso Donati, dies in his bed. The not-so-grieving relatives, whining and fearful that they have been cut out of the old man’s will, summon the clever Gianni Schicchi to help them overcome this horrible turn of events. He devises a plan to impersonate the dying Donati and dictate a new will to a lawyer benefiting the greedy relatives. Instead, Schicchi tricks them, dictating a will leaving most of the wealth to himself, and allowing his daughter to marry young Rinuccio, a Donati nephew.
As is usual with UT Opera Theatre productions, the cast is partially split over the three performances. Singing Gianni Schicchi in all three performances will be baritone Jesse Stock. Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta, who has one of the most beautiful lyrical arias in opera, “O mio babbino caro,” will be sung by Jessica Cates and Rachel Ann Moore. Lauretta’s lover, Rinuccio, will be sung by tenor Stefan Barner. Leah Serr and Andrew Gilchrist will sing the roles of the Donati cousins, Zita and Simone, respectively.
Death is an ironic element as well in Stephen Paulus’ 1979 one-act opera The Village Singer, the other half of the UT Opera double bill, based on a short story by the late-19th-century New England writer Mary Wilkins Freeman. Both the poignancy and bittersweet nature of the story is reflected in Paulus’ modern lyricism.
The plot revolves around the controversy that befalls a small-town church congregation in Maine when its long-time soloist, Candace Whitcomb, is asked to step aside for a younger singer, Alma Way, who also happens to be the fiancee of Whitcomb’s nephew, Wilson Ford. Whitcomb, who lives next door to the church, takes her revenge on everyone by throwing open her windows on Sunday morning, playing her parlor organ, and singing her own competing solos, loudly, during the church hymns.
The Village Singer, with a libretto by Michael Dennis Browne, was commissioned by Richard Gaddes and the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis for its fourth season in 1979. It was Paulus’ first opera in production and one of four operas commissioned by that organization, including the better known The Postman Always Rings Twice. Since its premiere, the opera has had a number of professional productions, but is particularly popular with college and university programs. In fact, Freeman sang the role of Wilson Ford in the opera’s second professional production at the University of Minnesota in 1980.
In this production, the role of Candace Whitcomb will be sung by Amanda Peavyhouse. Splitting the role of Alma Way will be Valerie Haber and Paige Patrick. Erik Lickiss will sing the role of Wilson Ford; Evan Broadhead will sing the role of William Emmons, the choir director. For both operas, the UT Opera Theatre music director is Kevin Class; Maestro James Fellenbaum will conduct the UT Opera Orchestra. m