09 November 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — SUOR ANGELICA and GIANNI SCHICCHI (M. Thompson, J. Hawley, M. MacKenzie, J. Burns, A. Richardson, M. A. Zentner, D. Hartmann, S. MacLeod; Piedmont Opera, 15 October 2021)

IN REVIEW: soprano MARSHA THOMPSON (center) and the cast of Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Suor Angelica and Gianni SchicchiMarsha Thompson (Suor Angelica), Janine Hawley (La zia principessa, Zita), Margaret Ann Zentner (Suor Genovieffa), Amanda Moody Schumpert (La suora zelatrice), Alden Pridgen (La maestra della novizie), (Suor Osmina), Bonnie Blackwell (Suor Dolcina), Erica Helmle (La suora infermiera), Laura Hutchins (Una cercatrice), Katherine Ledbetter (Una cercatrice), Charli Mills (Una novizia), Sara Roberts (Una novizia), Malcolm MacKenzie (Gianni Schicchi), Jodi Burns (Lauretta), Alex Richardson (Rinuccio), Kameron Alston (Gherardo), Kristin Schwecke (La badessa, Nella), André Peele (Betto di Signa), Donald Hartmann (Simone), Scott MacLeod (Marco), Regan Bisch (La Ciesca), Connor May Kelly (Gherardino), Lawrence Hall (Maestro Spinelloccio), Scott Lee (Messer Amantio di Nicolao), Hal Garrison (Pinellino), Jonathan Burdette (Guccio), Bill Phillips (Buoso Donati); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, director; Piedmont Opera, Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 15 October 2021]

The world première of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on 10 December 1910, inaugurated a partnership between Italian opera’s most celebrated composer of the day and one of North America’s leading opera houses that, barely a month after Germany’s signing of the Armistice of Compiègne effectively ended the First World War, yielded another première, that of the trio of one-act operas christened as Il trittico. First performed on 14 December 1918, Il trittico was the realization of a project conceived by Puccini following the tremendous success of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, the quintessential verismo melodrama in one act. Originally planned as a three-part setting of episodes from Dante Alighieri’s Divina commedia, the work gradually evolved during its prolonged gestation into a trilogy of pieces subtly linked by examinations of violent, tragic, and farcical aspects of death. Ultimately, only Il trittico’s closer, the comic Gianni Schicchi, retained an association with Dante. Divisive since its première, Il trittico is reminiscent more of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes galantes than of Puccini’s other mature operas. As in Rameau’s innovative work, humanity itself is the central character in Il trittico.

Puccini explicitly instructed that the three operas of Il trittico should always be performed together. He was persuaded to authorize the substitution of a ballet interlude for Suor Angelica in a London production but succinctly expressed his disapprobation upon learning that Il tabarro was also excised. Critics assessing the Metropolitan Opera première and subsequent stagings in Rome and Chicago disagreed with the composer, many of them praising Gianni Schicchi as the strongest of the three operas, musically and theatrically, and advocating for separation of each Trittico opera from its siblings. Launching the company’s 2021 – 2022 Season, Piedmont Opera’s production of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi—the company’s first stagings of these pieces—restored two of the operas to their proper places, validating the composer’s theatrical sagacity by emphasizing the stylistic links between the two disparate stories and their musical treatments. Under the direction of Steven LaCosse, a familiar presence in opera in and beyond central North Carolina owing to his work with Piedmont Opera and UNC School of the Arts, this production relocated the operas from the Renaissance to times more familiar to the audience. Contrary to modern trends of updating operas’ settings, LaCosse’s endeavors engendered meaningful connections among the audience, Puccini’s characters, and the singers portraying them.

Placing the action in the Twentieth Century, LaCosse’s direction was rich with details that heightened the sense of community that pervaded these stagings of both operas. Suor Angelica tending to her beloved plants with palpable tenderness, the convent’s mistress of novices scribbling notes about her charges’ spiritual missteps, Betto clandestinely taming his nerves with the contents of a flask, and Simone spitefully extinguishing the votives that he lit before the discovery of Buoso’s will exemplified the scope of LaCosse’s efforts to create credible environments in which the operas’ events transpired. With an opulent suit for the Zia principessa, designed by Howard Tsvi Kaplan, that contrasted tellingly with the nuns’ austere habits and whimsically colorful attire that gave each character in Gianni Schicchi individual style, the costumes ideally complemented LaCosse’s direction, Norman Coates’s logical lighting, and Kevin McBee’s attractive but undistracting scenic designs. LaCosse, stage manager Ann Louise Wolf, and their production team ensured that a focal point was always discernible, even in moments of manic activity, centering the plots with specificity that some productions lack.

Performances of all or portions of Il trittico often impart little of each opera’s kinship with its brethren. In this performance, Piedmont Opera’s General Director James Allbritten conducted Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi with attention to the thematic and dramatic nuances that link the scores. There were passages during the first ten minutes of Suor Angelica in which the Winston-Salem Symphony’s playing was surprisingly untidy, pitch and ensemble faltering, but these proved to be momentary defects. As the evening progressed, the musicians increasingly rivaled the best work of their counterparts in renowned opera companies’ orchestras. Particularly in Suor Angelica, Allbritten’s tempi were often daringly slow, his choices unmistakably guided as much by words as by music. In both operas, ensembles were handled with the conductor’s trademark skill for elucidating each character’s unique emotions. So insightful was Allbritten’s handling of the transitions of mood that propel Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi that not only were the operas wholly credible as companions in a single evening but also the famiglia Donati of Gianni Schicchi convinced as the sort of people who might have exiled a vulnerable young woman to a convent. Typical of his work with Piedmont Opera, Allbritten’s conducting of this performance accentuated the ways in which the composer used melody to bring characters and their stories to life.

IN REVIEW: sopranos MARSHA THOMPSON in the title rôle (left) and MARGARET ANN ZENTNER as Suor Genovieffa (right) in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Suore ed amiche: sopranos Marsha Thompson in the title rôle (left) and Margaret Ann Zentner as Suor Genovieffa (right) in Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

Joining with the principals in portraying the denizens of the convent in which Suor Angelica has done penance without word from her family for seven years, the ladies of the Piedmont Opera Chorus sang splendidly, whether praising providential mercies, enduring hardships, or teasing one another lightheartedly. Their voicing of the liturgical texts, in his settings of which Puccini reminded his contemporaries that he was the descendant of accomplished composers of sacred music, was serene, vividly contrasting with their depictions of the jocular banter amongst the sisters. A particular example of the sagacity of Allbritten’s pacing of the performance was the broad tempo that he chose for ‘E una sorella la manca,’ the nuns’ brief lament for a deceased member of the community. Rarely given any true emotional weight in staged productions, Allbritten’s conducting and the beautiful singing in this performance lent this fleeting moment unexpected gravitas.

The success of a performance of Suor Angelica arguably relies upon the effectiveness of the singer portraying the title rôle more than any other Puccini opera, but Suor Angelica is also an ensemble piece. Perhaps inspired by the personalities he encountered when visiting his cloistered sister, Puccini populated Suor Angelica with dynamic characterizations in miniature. Piedmont Opera’s Suor Angelica was distinguished by the participation of an ensemble of gifted singing actresses, each of whom projected her character’s unique identity.

Sopranos Laura Hutchins and Katherine Ledbetter and mezzo-soprano Sarah Roberts and soprano Charli Mills respectively portrayed the Cercatrici and Novizie with girlish excitement. Soprano Bonnie Blackwell’s merrily glutinous Suor Dolcina was an utter delight, and both the Suora zelatrice of soprano Amanda Moody Schumpert and the Suora infermiera of mezzo-soprano Erica Helmle impressed, musically and dramatically. Mezzo-soprano Alden Pidgen conveyed the Maestra della novizie’s meticulous watchfulness, and soprano Kristin Schwecke sang the Badessa’s lines with benevolent sternness. Credit for the clever musical portraiture in Suor Angelica goes to Puccini, but the insightful variety of his character studies is as apparent in few productions as in this one.

A participant in UNCSA’s Fletcher Fellows program, soprano Margaret Ann Zentner portrayed Suor Genovieffa with glistening, focused tone and unaffectedly youthful acting, conveying the sister’s naïvété and kind disposition without saccharine exaggeration. She sang ‘O sorelle, sorelle, io voglio rivelarvi che una spera di sole’ with warmth and wonder, her top A aptly radiant. Zentner voiced ‘O sorelle in pio lavoro’ and ‘Soave Signor mio, tu sai che prima d ora nel mondo ero pastora’ with graceful zeal and a timbre that recalled the voice of the young Mirella Freni, exhibiting complete mastery of the art of imaginatively inhabiting a rôle, musically and dramatically.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano JANINE HAWLEY as La zia principessa in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]La voce della convenzione: mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley as La zia principessa in Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

Though the duration of her appearance in Suor Angelica amounts to only twelve or so minutes, the title character’s fierce, unfeeling aunt, the Zia principessa, is justifiably regarded as one of Italian opera’s most ferocious villainesses. As such, she is sometimes portrayed as a vicious, one-dimensional figure whose vitriol is tempered by neither empathy nor psychological depth. Both Puccini and his librettist for Il trittico, Giovacchino Forzano, supplied thoughtful singers with opportunities for multi-faceted interpretation, however, and Piedmont Opera’s Zia principessa, mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley, capitalized on oft-neglected gentler dimensions of the part. The granitic bleakness of her articulation of ‘Il Principe Gualtiero vostro padre’ established an atmosphere of disquieting formality that pervaded her interpretation.

The unyielding abrasiveness of Hawley’s deportment was chilling, yet there were fleeting glimpses of vulnerability beyond the steely façade. The mezzo-soprano delivered ‘Or son due anni, venne colpito da fiero morbo’ with emotion that transcended mere indignation, suggesting that the princess was no less acquainted with suffering than her niece. Having informed Angelica of the death of the son whose conception led her to the convent, Hawley was for a moment more zia than principessa, instinctively reaching for Angelica to offer comfort before shrinking from the touch. This glimmer of compassion made the character seem all the more terrible, her frigidity unmistakably a choice. Hawley’s center of vocal gravity was slightly higher than the music requires, but she conquered the low writing without forcing the voice. Singing powerfully, Hawley depicted the Zia principessa as a glamorous but damaged woman rather than a snarling shrew.

IN REVIEW: soprano MARSHA THOMPSON in the title rôle in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]La madre in lutto: soprano Marsha Thompson in the title rôle in Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

Witnessing a singer’s first performance of a challenging rôle can be akin to viewing an artist’s canvas before the paint dries. The shapes and colors are present, but the subtleties and shadows that contribute much to the piece’s value and integrity develop over time. Soprano Marsha Thompson’s rôle début as Angelica demonstrated commendable comprehension of the part, communicated through singing that disclosed assiduous study of the score and immersion in the character’s devastating emotions. Joining her sisters in prayer, this Angelica’s voicing of ‘Prega per noi peccatori’ was wrenchingly personal, her quest for benediction vaulting to heaven in passionate but poised tones. There was an aura of Renata Scotto’s metaphysical acuity in Thompson’s singing of ‘I desideri sono i fiori dei vivi,’ the significance of flowers to both her survival in the convent and her eventual escape from it disclosed without being unduly accentuated. Like Scotto, Thompson exhibited cognizance of the intended trajectory of her characterization from the start.

Seven years of repressed hope erupted in Thompson’s voicing of ‘Ah! ditermi, sorella, com’ era la berlina,’ the expansiveness of her reading limning Angelica’s sense of the gravity of the moment. The anger, fear, and helplessness that gripped her Angelica in the dreadful meeting with the Zia principessa resounded in the soprano’s voice, her delivery of ‘Sorella di mia madre, voi siete inesorabile!’ suffused with timbral shadings. The voice took on a biting edge as Angelica pleaded for news of her child. Learning of the boy’s death incited a transformation in this Angelica: the raw, blaring tones of a wounded woman were replaced by the resolute sounds of a mother already following her son into the freedom of death.

In Thompson’s performance, the searing aria ‘Senza mamma, o bimbo, tu sei morto!’ was lived as much as it was sung, the stirring top As directed to the child the despondent mother could not comfort. Rather than being broken as Cio-Cio San is when her child is taken from her, this Angelica found in the knowledge of her child’s death impetus to flee from the oppression of her remorse and isolation. In both ‘La Vergine ha fatto la grazia’ and ‘Ah! lodiam,’ Thompson’s glistening top Cs expressed Angelica’s new commitment to reuniting with her son. Her affection for the flowers she so painstakingly cultivated assumed fatal implications in ‘Amici fiori, voi mi compensate,’ and her ‘Addio, buone sorelle,’ crowned by a stunning top B, was the farewell of a woman certain of the inevitability of her choice.

Thompson exercised exceptional control in Angelica’s final scene, genuinely singing rather than screaming the repeated top As with which the dying mother recognizes and seeks forgiveness for her action against the divine gift of life. Her pleas to the Blessed Virgin were not platitudes addressed to an archetype. The intensity of Thompson’s singing lent Angelica’s final utterances the pathos of one grieving mother appealing to another woman who could not save her son from a cruel death. Tearing off her veil as death overtook her, she was no longer a servant of an earthly church. She was merely a mother, transfigured by returning to the presence of her child. With future opportunities to revisit the rôle, Thompson’s acquaintance with Angelica will undoubtedly develop even greater individuality, but her initial interpretation, distinguished by confident, often exhilarating vocalism that, especially in the lower octave, recalled the singing of Leontyne Price, was memorably moving.

IN REVIEW: the cast of Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCHI [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]La famiglia scontenta: the cast of Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

As the Catechism regards suicide as a violation of God’s dominion over human life, it is not surprising that the Catholic Church found the implicit absolution that ends Suor Angelica vexing. Its plot centering on a greedy family fraudulently depriving a monastery of a generous bequest, Gianni Schicchi might reasonably have proved to be no less objectionable to the Church—it was in hell that Dante encountered the historical Gianni Schicchi de’ Cavalcanti, after all. Musically, however, Gianni Schicchi’s sins are few and, in a performance as captivating as Piedmont Opera’s, wholly pardonable.

The fortuitous casting from which Piedmont Opera’s performance of Suor Angelica benefited was rivaled by the consistent excellence of the portraits of the embittered scions of the Donati clan. Without singing a note, Piedmont Opera Board of Directors member Bill Phillips was uproariously effective as the not-so-dearly-departed Buoso. The notary and his attending witnesses, Pinellino and Guccio, received spirited characterizations from baritone Scott Lee and basses Hal Garrison (a member of the Piedmont Opera company since 1978) and Jonathan Burdette. Baritone Lawrence Hall sang Puccini’s lines for the none-too-observant physician Maestro Spinelloccio amusingly, maintaining an uncommonly high level of musical accuracy.

Darting across the stage with the litheness of a ballerina, Connor May Kelly was a Gherardino, the seven-year-old son of Gherardo and Nella, worthy of his parents. Equaling her Badessa in Suor Angelica, Kristin Schwecke dispatched Nella’s aggrieved interjections and top C rousingly, and tenor Kameron Alston voiced Gherardo’s music with exuberance and glistening tone. Like Schwecke, Janine Hawley supplemented her riveting Zia principessa with a droll depiction of the implacable Zita. Soprano Regan Bisch and baritone Scott MacLeod sang and acted ably as the formidable La Ciesca and her wan husband Marco. Bass-baritone André Peele’s Betto di Signa handled both his music and his liquor with aplomb.

His cane and uncertain gait notwithstanding, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann’s Simone, the eldest of Buoso’s disgruntled heirs, was no bumbling dotard. Many interpreters of the part rely upon trickery to promulgate the authority that Hartmann wields solely through the voice. Allied with stagecraft redolent of the golden age of vaudeville, this Simone’s voice orated ‘Se il testamento è in mano d’un notaio’ and ‘Dunque era vero!’ potently, the words articulated with caustic wit. Fulminating against Schicchi’s duplicity, Hartmann literally stole the scene, his Simone exasperatedly pilfering the curtains from Buoso’s bedchamber as he was chased from the house he expected to inherit.

IN REVIEW: tenor ALEX RICHARDSON as Rinuccio (left) and mezzo-soprano JANINE HAWLEY as Zita in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCHI [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]L’amore e l’avidità: tenor Alex Richardson as Rinuccio (left) and mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley as Zita (right) in Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

The most wily of the relations gathered in anticipation of the windfall promised by old Buoso’s demise, Rinuccio is asked to sing much of the opera’s most demanding music, including one of Puccini’s iconic tenor arias, but sometimes fails to truly emerge from the ensemble as a fully-realized character. Unabashedly emotive, athletic, and boyishly handsome, Alex Richardson’s Rinuccio was unmistakably his own man, devoted to his family but ready to defy them in order to secure his future with his beloved Lauretta. His febrile defense of Schicchi, condemned by the Donati kinsmen as a blackguard, was galvanizing, his blazing top B making ‘Avete torto!’ an argument that could not be refuted. Richardson voiced the celebrated aria ‘Firenze è come un alberto fiorito’ rousingly, untroubled by its top B♭s. Upon Schicchi’s arrival, this Rinuccio took charge, his ‘Signor Giovanni, rimanete un momento!’ prohibiting refusal. The repetitions of ‘Addio, speranza bella’ as all seemed lost were comically exaggerated but impeccably sung. Having lost the Donati fortune but won Lauretta’s hand, he voiced ‘Lauretta mia, staremo sempre qui’ exultantly, ecstatically joining Lauretta on her optional top D♭. Richardson’s Rinuccio was a man of action, not merely a lovesick boy, and his vocalism rose intrepidly to every challenge of the music.

IN REVIEW: soprano JODI BURNS as Lauretta in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCI [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]La melodia suadente: soprano Jodi Burns as Lauretta in Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

Bringing coquettish enchantment reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe to her portrayal of Schicchi’s fiesty daughter Lauretta soprano Jodi Burns sang Puccini’s soaring melodic lines with unfailing musicality and lustrous tone. Romancing with Rinuccio, Burns sang sweetly but with unstinting determination to accomplish her own goals in the wake of the Donati family drama. Her account of the familiar ‘O mio babbino caro’ was rightly cheered, her tone inviolably secure and fetchingly beautiful throughout the range. Too frequently, singers try to make the aria a grand ‘moment’ like Mimì’s ‘Addio, senza rancor’ or Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore.’ Burns presented the aria as precisely what it is: one of opera’s most melodious acts of manipulation. Lauretta prevailing in her cunning venture to convince her father of the intrinsic rectitude of coming to Rinuccio’s aid, Burns phrased ‘La mi giurasti amore!’ with an air of triumph, ascending effortlessly to top D♭. Schicchi is the architect of the plan that ultimately unites his daughter with her ardent lover, but Burns’s Lauretta had both her caro babbino and the audience in the palm of her hand from her first note.

IN REVIEW: soprano JODI BURNS as Lauretta (left) and baritone MALCOLM MACKENZIE in the title rôle in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCHI [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]Il padre e la sua figlia: soprano Jodi Burns as Lauretta (left) and baritone Malcolm MacKenzie in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

Like his colleague in the title rôle of Suor Angelica, baritone Malcolm MacKenzie expanded his repertoire in this Piedmont Opera production with his first performance of the eponymous protagonist of Gianni Schicchi. When hearing performances of this opera, it is easy to forget that its name part was created in the 1918 première by the great baritone Giuseppe de Luca, then only forty-one years old and already the first Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. Casting Schicchi with singers possessing more personality than voice clearly was not Puccini’s intention, but tradition now assigns the rôle in many productions to superannuated singers whose vocal prowess no longer encompasses the technical wherewithal needed to master the composer’s writing. Piedmont Opera followed Puccini’s example by casting MacKenzie, whose vocal presence was at its pinnacle in this performance.

Entering Casa Donati with cyclonic force, MacKenzie’s Schicchi commandeered the performance with easy charisma and vocal strength. The irony of his voicing of ‘Ah! Andato? Perchè stanno a lacrimare?’ manifested Schicchi’s renowned perceptiveness. None too impressed by the haughty Zita’s snobbish denunciation of his offer of assistance, he hurled ‘Brava, la vecchia! Brava!’ at her furiously. Succumbing to Lauretta’s cajoling, this Schicchi growled ‘Datemi il testamento!’ with annoyance, begrudgingly accepting that not even his legendary savvy was a match for a daughter’s persuasiveness. Some of his fellow portrayers of Schicchi struggle with the rôle’s daunting tessitura, not least in ‘In testa la cappellina,’ but MacKenzie approached the music with unflappable assurance, producing an electrifying top G.

Allocating his devious resources to circumventing the conditions of Buoso’s will, Piedmont Opera’s Schicchi battled a parade of schemers with an array of agendas. MacKenzie responded with adaptability of which a veteran politician would have been proud, tailoring his replies to each disenfranchised Donati’s solicitation in turn. The baritone sang ‘Prima un avvertimento!’ boldly. Schicchi’s aria ‘Addio, Firenze; addio, cielo divino’ spotlights the weaknesses of some exponents of the part, but MacKenzie’s traversal of the piece exuded absolute comfort with the music. Similarly, Schicchi’s impersonation of the expired Buoso can be embarrassingly over the top. This Schicchi eschewed excessive crooning and wheezing, always attentive to musical values. MacKenzie excelled in Schicchi’s comedy, but the foremost pleasure of his performance was hearing a voice of such high caliber in the rôle. Epitomized by the work of a cast of rare distinction, uncompromising musicality was the touchstone of Piedmont Opera’s production of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.