In Series' Puccini, Stravinsky 'pocket operas' sparkle at GALA

Photo: Paul Aebersold

WASHINGTON, June 18, 2013 – The In Series is back to what it does best this week at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, presenting another installment in its “Pocket Opera” series, this one subtitled “Love and Money.” This time, the company has paired Puccini’s short comic opera gem “Gianni Schicchi” with a cleverly abridged version of Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” (“L’Histoire du soldat”). Okay, the Stravinsky isn’t really an opera, but we’ll get to that. Bottom line: the In Series’ current pocket presentations are a pair of little gems you’ll not want to miss.

Most opera fans are well familiar with “Gianni Schicchi,” the most frequently performed of a trio of one-act Puccini operas premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918 and grouped under the heading “Il Trittico” (“The Trilogy”). The lesser-known one acts are mini-tragedies. But “Gianni Schicchi” is a broadly comic satire that lampoons not only greed but the privileged families that thrive on it.

Ironically, the title character and anti-hero of this one-hour musical gem was inspired by a short episode in Dante’s “Inferno,” in which the poet’s Gianni Schicchi is consigned to hell for illegally modifying the will of the wealthy Buoso Donati. Schicchi impersonates the already-dead man in order to craft a new will, with himself as the primary beneficiary.

Puccini and his librettist, Giovacchino Forzano, cleverly flipped Dante’s condemnatory treatment of Schicchi by transforming him into a small businessman who eventually outwits the family of wealthy would-be heirs that look down upon him as their inferior. As an extra-added bonus, the opera adds into the mix a side-romance between Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta, and Rinuccio, one of the potential heirs and the only nice guy among them. This mini-romantic interpolation gave Puccini the chance to write the opera’s signature aria, “O mio babbino caro” (roughly, “Dearest Daddy”), which remains one of the composer’s greatest hits.

Johnny Schicchi (Gene Galvin) begins to work his magic, as The Donati women, (from left) Ciesca (Mary Gresock), Zita (Grace Gori), and Nella (Adriana Gonzalez) dress him for his Bruno impersonation. (All photos, credit: Paul Aebersold)

As is its custom, the In Series has updated the opera for its Washington audience by moving its locale to more or less contemporary Philadelphia, renaming the already-dead rich guy to Bruno Donati, and making him the now-deceased founding tycoon of a Philly Cheese Steak empire.


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The all-Italian heirs are all Philly natives as well, as is Schicchi, a reasonably well-off self-made man who’s actually smarter—and more devious—than the condescending heirs. We delight as we watch Schicchi swipe Bruno’s fortune right before the heirs’ covetous but unseeing eyes.

Best of all, the clever updated and still-witty libretto has been recast in English by the amazingly talented Bari Biern who originally created this version—“Johnny Schicchi”—for Poor Richard’s Opera in Philadelphia. Employing it here was an inspired choice, thoroughly in keeping with the In Series’ custom of making short operas, whether well known or unknown, accessible to a wider audience.

In Series pocket operas can’t boast the kind of mega-stars we see at the Washington National Opera. Nonetheless, the company generally has an uncanny knack for casting excellent singers for its productions, and this “Gianni Schicchi” is no exception. Heading up the list in this production is bass-baritone Eugene Galvin, whose arch, cynical, yet witty take on the title character gives this version of the opera an extra dose of spice. Secure and confident in the role, Mr. Galvin also proves an effective vocalist, whose voice articulates control and authority the moment he steps onstage.

Ricky (Jésus Daniel Hernández) and Lauretta (Laura Wehrmeyer) profess their undying love.


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Also impressive in the role of Rinuccio (“Ricky” in this production) is tenor Jesús Daniel Hernández, a protégé of Plácido Domingo and a former WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist. As the romantic lead in the opera’s subplot, he unveiled a still-growing and impressively substantial vocal instrument and made the most of “Ricky’s” brief but showy moments center stage.

The role of Lauretta, Schicchi’s love-smitten daughter, is a small one, seemingly created for the sole purpose of delivering Puccini’s famous aria. Indeed, after a few lines before and after this aria, she’s sent offstage by Schicchi and remains there throughout most of the rest of the opera. That said, “O mio babbino caro” is still a great party piece, and the light, winsome soprano voice of Laura Wehrmeyer made the most of it. Her lovely and emotional delivery of the aria brought cheers from the audience during last Saturday’s performance.

Lauretta (Laura Wehrmeyer) butters up dear Daddy Johnny (Gene Galvin) with one of Puccini’s most famous arias.

The remaining cast members—all Bruno’s greedy relatives—don’t get much to sing individually in this short opera, mostly adding chattering and bickering to the mix while occasionally colliding in brief, enjoyable choruses. But all the singers here performed their roles with relish, including Grace Gori, Joe Haughton, Adriana Gonzalez, Sean Pflueger, Lew Freeman, Gregory Stuart, Mary Gresock, and young Eli Schulman. The brief roles of Bruno’s physician and attorney (both performed by Peter Brabson) and the local mortician (Ashley Ivey) were also nicely done.

Direction by Rick Davis was carefully calibrated to make maximum use of GALA’s relatively compact stage. And the piano accompanist, area favorite and “Gianni” music director Frank Conlon, deserves a double hat tip.

“Schicchi” was the second of the In Series’ pocket operas to be performed last Saturday. The first mini-production—which, as we’ve already mentioned, isn’t really an opera—was Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale.” This unusual work, which also debuted, like “Schicchi”, in 1918, is most often heard as a purely instrumental work scored either for small orchestra or for a chamber ensemble. “Soldier’s Tale” is actually a multi-media work, with the music meant to serve as a backdrop for spoken dialogue and dance movements.

The original “Soldier’s Tale” is not a long work. It was last performed in this area in its full version a season or two ago at Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival outside of Warrenton, Virginia and didn’t take quite an hour as we recall. But the In Series has reduced its running time further, to about 40 minutes to fit the work into its pocket opera format. This has produced the happy secondary result of reducing some of the repetitiousness present in the original.

Briefly described, “Soldier’s Tale” is the story of a poor, naïve, good-natured working-class veteran returning from a recent war—clearly the First World War in this production. He’s coming home with only a duffel bag containing all his earthly possessions, in particular his prized violin. On his way home, he’s confronted by the Devil in disguise who promptly gets him to trade his violin for a textbook, in this case an economics textbook that unlocks the secrets of wealth and greed. The subtext here is clearly the eternal conflict between art and the artist on one hand and money and the support provided by the wealthy on the other, something that frequently troubled the cash-strapped Stravinsky around this time in his life.

Our Soldier (Jase Parker) is not yet aware he’s dancing with the Devil (Heidi Kershaw). Or is that his unfortunate bride? As in life, fact and fancy blend together.

In this adaptation—a reduced version tailored by director Rick Davis from the French to English translation of Barbara Phillips—the book in question is an economics textbook. And the free “translation” used here turns out to be an awfully funny and very topical satire on the cynicism of current economics and its devious terminology, all of which we read in the daily news but frequently misunderstand.

In any event, what follows in “Soldier’s Tale” may be a dream or may be reality. But in the end, our soldier concludes that he needs to get his beloved violin back, which brings this tale full circle.

It’s not much of a challenge to imagine why the In Series chose to weave “Soldier’s Tale” into its normally operatic pocket format. Even the original version of this work is not a lengthy one. The music and the setting is small and intimate, as most pocket opera productions tend to be.

But perhaps as importantly, “Soldier’s Tale” allows the Series to incorporate the dance element into its current show, an art form this company has exploited with increasing success to add color and pageantry to its budget productions while providing an important outlet for local dancers and choreographers to stretch out and explore their craft in often unusual formats.

The tiny cast of “Soldier’s Tale” put on a superb performance, highlighted by Jase Parker’s superbly emotive Soldier as well as the protean dance interpretations of Ashley Ivey, Gregory Stuart, and Heidi Kershaw who spoke and danced multiple roles. We’re more familiar with Mr. Parker as a talented and expressive vocalist both with the In Series and with other troupes. But here, he demonstrated an equally fine grasp of the dance. Better yet, his partners in this production were also inspired to do their best, particularly Heidi Kershaw whose impassioned performance as the Devil, as well as in smaller roles, in large part helped to lift this production well above the ordinary.

The Soldier (Jase Parker) is about to trade art for economics with the Devil’s henchman (Ashley Ivey). Bad move, Soldier!

Under the direction of Rick Davis and with perfectly calibrated choreography by Jaime Coronado, the dance moves and pantomime in this production was quite simply marvelous. Its design was both fluid and kinetic, and the performers fit characters and characterizations like a second skin. This writer does not normally review dance productions. But nearly anyone with a modicum of artistic sensitivity could easily get caught up in the magic of Saturday’s performance. For the price of admission, you really couldn’t do better.

And let’s not forget the music in this production. Stravinsky’s brittle, crafty score seems to draw upon both “The Firebird” and particularly “The Rite of Spring” as its touchstones. Yet at times, the music also seems as if it’s doing a mind-meld with the acid-etched attitude of Stravinsky’s contemporary, Kurt Weill. Reduced to a trio in this production, the edginess and satirical bite of this score seems even more pronounced.

Which leads us to the second surprise in this production. The fine performance of the trio here surpassed all understanding during Saturday’s performance. Again featuring the excellent Frank Conlon as both music director and pianist, violinist Sonya Hayes and clarinetist Evan Solomon combined to channel the kind of troubled and agitated mental state Stravinsky must have endured as he composed this multi-faceted work.

With the piano providing the ground as well as instrumental fill, with the violin providing a ghostly warp and weave, and with the clarinet adding a lament here and a wail for help there, the instrumental ensemble here was integral to the story being woven by the dancer-actors on stage precisely in the way that an opera orchestra provides instrumental texture and commentary that flows beneath the showy vocals of the singers.

In short, this was as musically integrated a performance as you’ll likely get when it comes to “The Soldier’s Tale.” Plus, its pairing with “Gianni Schicchi” artfully examines the issues of war, tradition, economic dislocation, and income disparity. We face surprisingly similar circumstances today in 2013, along with an equal lack of moral, spiritual, and monetary answers for those same questions. One wonders when the games will end and when the solutions will commence.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars.)

The In Series’ current pocket opera production, “Love and Money” concludes with performances this weekend, Saturday, June 22, at 3 p.m., and Monday, June 24, at 7:30 p.m. Both performances are presented at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009. For more information, parking suggestions, and to purchase tickets, visit the In Series website, or contact the box office at 202-204-7763.

Note: Free audience discussion with the artists will follow the June 22 performance.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17



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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  

 

 

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