OPERA NEWS - Gianni Schicchi & The Medium
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Gianni Schicchi & The Medium

Merola Opera Program

UNLIKE THE SEEMINGLY MONOGAMOUS Cav & Pag, Puccini's Gianni Schicchi often gets paired up with a rotating assortment of odd partners. For their first staged production of the summer, Merola Opera Program presented it with Gian Carlo Menotti's 1946 melodrama The Medium. Heard on July 24 in San Francisco's Cowell Theater on the pier of the Fort Mason Center (with sea gulls audible during the quiet moments), this unconventional double-bill provided diverse opportunities for the program's large stable of young artists.

Menotti's melodramatic work from early in his decades-ago heyday depicts Madame Flora, a disillusioned occultist who perceives a ghostly hand around her throat while conducting a routine séance and is driven to near madness. Her hapless daughter Monica and their accomplice in the staged illusions, the mute boy Toby, endure Flora's verbal and physical abuses until fear and paranoia yield drastic consequences.

Mezzo soprano Nicole Woodward's Flora was a forthright, take-no-prisoners portrayal of a woman in crisis. Soprano Madison Leonard's aggressive sensuality in the role of Monica introduced some welcome depth to Menotti's two-dimensional cast of characters and her soprano gleamed in her two arias. As Toby, Alasdair Kent moved like a frightened animal, trapped between an intimidating matriarch and an intimacy-starved vixen. It is a pity that a Merolini, brought to San Francisco to sing, would be assigned a mute role, but Kent showed commitment in the part (he had an opportunity, albeit a brief one, to exhibit his voice in the second half of the program as Gherardo in Gianni Schicchi). Soprano Kathryn Bowden, bass baritone Austin Siebert, and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, ably played a trio of Flora's customers.

The small orchestra gave an unfocused performance of Menotti's unremarkable score, though conductor Mark Morash achieved more cohesive playing by the end of the opera. Two Merola apprentice coaches, Edoardo Barsotti and Robert Bosworth, were consistently engaging to watch as they played piano for four hands on the same instrument in the pit, occasionally taking turns on a celeste to execute eerie effects for the séance on stage. Their contribution to Madame Flora's illusion trade warranted a place on her payroll.

The mood brightened considerably after intermission with an energetic, modern dress performance of Gianni Schicchi. Puccini's comedy, so often treated with respectful reverence by directors, rarely achieves laugh-out-loud hilarity, but Merola Opera went for it in this production and the vaudevillian fervor and scene-stealing desperation of their young artists paid off. The ensemble cast's comedic timing may not have been uniformly razor-sharp throughout, but director Peter Kazaras drilled his troupe enough for their rapid-fire exchanges and madcap energy to manage more than enough hits, including a few big laughs.

Played on the same set by Donald Eastman used for The Medium, Schicchi opened with the doomed rich man, Buoso Donati, dragging himself to bed while his boisterous relatives play a game of Scopa, taking little notice of him limping along with his IV fluids on a rolling stand. This extended scene, including lots of interplay before the first notes of the opera were played, was ingenious, providing a chance to observe eccentric family dynamics, take in the setting, and study Kristi Johnson's outrageous costumes which had Donati's relatives arrayed like casting rejects from a handful of reality TV programs. Once the opera proper was underway, tenor Christopher Bozeka momentarily quieted the bluster with a handsome, open-throated rendering of Rinuccio's aria. This fine vocal moment proved only a set-up for arguably the night's biggest laugh: the entrance of Gianni Schicchi wearing an Addidas jogging suit, headband, and conniving smirk.

Boasting a magnificent baritone and seemingly effortless delivery, Kihun Yoon easily took vocal honors on the night in the title role and excited whispers could be heard in the audience after many of his solos. Yoon's portrayal did not approach subtlety, but like the rest of the cast played gainfully for maximum impact. When Schicchi, posing as Donati, changes the will from his sickbed to favor himself, Yoon flipped back the covers to give his pronouncements and then dove beneath the blankets again, as if to shield himself from the relatives' expected indignation. Yoon's expressions and emphatic ducking elicited more than polite giggles; the audience roared at every turn.

Nothing was sacred in this performance. Between Yoon's mugging and Cree Carrico's rough handling of him during "O mio babbino caro," even the beloved aria was a "bit" played for laughs. Excellent contributions were also made by Zachary Elmassian as Simone and Tara Curtis as Zita, the later a gifted comedienne who commanded attention even when she wasn't singing. Morash, conducting an enlarged orchestra, maintained a lively, Marx Brothers-worthy pace.  —Jeffery S. McMillan

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