Tuesday, September 22, 2009

San Francisco Opera's Il Trittico

September 18, 2009

It’s impressive enough that Patricia Racette is delivering all three soprano roles in Puccini’s trio of one-acts; what’s even more impressive is the style in which she and her cohorts are doing it. Aided by sets and costumes from the 2002 New York City Opera production, SFO’s performance is a thoroughly satiating evening of opera, capped by a dazzling, Fellini-esque “Gianni Schicchi.”

The three-role trick demands a singer with versatility both vocal and theatrical, and Racette, a graduate of SFO’s Merola Program, certainly qualifies.Tackling the verismo potboiler of Il Tabarro, Racette performs the lusty, frustrated wife Giorgetta with a forceful, dramatic, tone, invested with a bit of a jagged edge.With Suor Angelica, she shifts to a classic Puccinian lyric, shaping her phrases with a light touch befitting the religious setting. Dramatically, her handling of the pivotal scene, in which she learns of the death of her illegitimate son, rang resoundingly true, and led the way into a mesmerizing performance of the beautiful “Senza mamma.”

Finally, she shifts to the Rossinian, opera buffa sensibilities of “Gianni Schicchi.” Racette sacrifices all for the laughter, trotting around in a pink Sandra Dee dress and heels and even marking up the revered “O mio babbino caro” with comic pouts and sobs. It’s a miracle that any one singer could make it through this panoply of styles (the last I knew of was Barbara Divis’s 2007 performance at Hawaiian Opera Theater), but then Racette is a pretty miraculous performer.

Not that she achieves all of this by herself. Il Tabarro offers tenor Brandon Jovanovich’s wrenching performance of “Hai ben ragione,” a tirade against the harshness of a stevedore’s life. Baritone Paolo Gavanelli achieves a fine balance with Michele, the sometimes-sympathetic, sometimes-scary husband, notably in his final, fatal litany of suspicions.

Angelica is rare for its all-female adult cast; this serves to accentuate the strength of SFO’s chorus singers, who are asked to sing together almost as a single entity, the sisterhood offering a running commentary on their eccentric peer. The stark contrast comes from contralto Ewa Podles, who applies her quirky stage presence to Angelica’s heartless aunt, The Princess.

For “Gianni Schicchi,” director James Robinson has assembled the most divine team of oddballs this side of “The Office.” The standouts include contralto Meredith Arwady as Zita, the enormous (both physically and vocally) bass Andrea Silvestrelli, and David Lomeli, who lends a brilliant tenor to the ingenue Rinuccio. The center, of course, is the title character, and Paolo Gavanelli, like Racette, displays an astounding ability to play both sides of the coin, recovering from the tormented Michele to play the crafty, cantankerous lawyer. His impression of the dead uncle, Buoso – upon which the family’s will-changing scam depends – is hilarious, with a few bits of Adam Sandler thrown in for good measure.

Allen Moyer’s “Schicchi” set – an astounding kaleidoscope of black-and-white checks – earned its own applause. Bruno Schwengl took his black-and-white costumes straight from a Fellini movie. The cast also made much use of the new electronic cigarettes, chain-smoking inside a dying man’s room as only a dysfunctional ‘50s clan could. Moyer’s “Angelica” set is a ‘50s model as well, a children’s hospital whose green-tiled walls, painted cabinets and miniature desks should evoke memories both good and bad for Catholic spectators.

It’s a joy to see Il Trittico in its original form (for the first time at SFO since 1952), especially for the testament it provides to Puccini’s virtuosity. It was almost as if the aging composer wanted to play a game of Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better, simultaneously paying tribute to verismo, the sacred music of his childhood and the great school of opera buffa. His very popularity has inspired a trendy new wave of Puccini-haters, but what’s irrefutable is that the man was an amazing musician.

Through October 3 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330, http://www.sfopera.com/.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the opera novel “Gabriella’s Voice.” Look for his author page at amazon.com.

Image: Allen Moyer's Fellini-esque set for "Gianni Schicchi." Photo by Cory Weaver.

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