Alan Held plays Gianni Schicchi

Story by Megan Leahy
Photo by Michael Cooper

Gianni Schicchi shows the Canadian Opera Company at its best, serving to remind Torontonians we are lucky to have international-caliber opera performed in our own backyards. Pucinni’s comedic opera is one half of the Florentine double bill, alongside Zemlinsky’s dramatic A Florentine Tragedy, that opened Thursday night at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Both one-act operas were originally set in Renaissance Florence and created within a year of each other in the early nineteenth century. Both sensationalize the sins and temptations that plague human nature, including lust, greed, forgery, adultery and murder.

A Florentine Tragedy was a story by Oscar Wilde. Typically cliché and one that he never finished, notwithstanding it caught the eye of the German composer who gave it a fierce and melodic interpretation. COC director, Catherine Malfitano, sets it in the roaring 1920s. The story begins as the merchant Simone comes home to his wife, Bianchi, flirting outrageously with the wealthy and politically influential Guidi Bardi. Simone uses the inappropriate situation to his advantage and tries to sell Guido his fine fashions. As the men discuss business, it becomes obvious Bianchi is having an affair with the prince. Tensions reach a peak when Guido agrees to buy the merchant’s house, but takes it one stop further in asking for Bianchi. The contest ends in a sword fight in which Simone kills Guido and the audience watches Bianchi’s attractions switch instantly as she falls back in love with Simone for his strength.

The COC production did have some weakness. The stage direction was distracting. As were the over-exaggerated movements and expressions of Gun-Brit Barkmin who played Bianchi. Conductor Sir Andrew Davis should be more careful not to drown out the voices with his enthusiastic direction. Both males, however, gave strong and well-acted performances, especially acclaimed American bass-baritone Alan Held who was just warming-up. Overall, an enjoyable show but nothing compared to what was to follow.

Modern day. The acting starts even before the house lights are dimmed and the orchestra has started. While the stagehands are adding last minute touches, Betto di Signa, played by Craig Irvin, is darting around stage and spills the contents of a bedpan. The audience is already giggling; anticipation is building. Enter a group of loud Italians, obviously all related and come to visit the old man sick in bed center stage – their uncle, Buoso Donati. They go straight to the TV. A goal is scored and the lot erupts in cheer. It takes a few moments before they realize the excitement has been too much for their uncle who is now dead. The rest of the opera is dedicated to the family’s attempt to prevent all of their uncle’s inheritance from going to the monks. They solicit Gianni Schicchi, the lead role again played by Held, who disguises himself as Bueso Donati and dictates a new will to a notary.

Primarily a comedy, many are unaware the opera features one of Puccini’s most heart-wrenching arias, Mio Bambino Caro. Simone Osborne, playing Lauretta, brought the audience to tears with her performance of the love solo, whereas the always-outstanding Held brought tears of laughter. The entire cast was superb, each with their own hilarious parody of an over-the-top Italian; they thrived as a unit thanks to great stage direction. Wilson Chin’s set played an equal part in the night’s success, featuring a towering structure of junk that the ensemble could perch atop. The act closes as Rinuccio, played by René Barbera, dramatically pulls down a curtain and motions for the back wall to be lifted, revealing a beautiful canvas of Florence stretching the whole stage and adding one final awe.

Though Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi was the superior production, A Florentine Double Bill as a whole is recommended for the sheer scope the operas cover together in one night. There is something agreeable in going from Zemlinksi’s German opera to Puccinni’s Italian version of the art. The audience is also treated to one of the greatest aria’s ever made, and the voice of a world-class opera singer, namely Alan Held.

A Florentine Double Bill is playing at the Four Seasons for the Performing Arts until May 25.

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