La Voix Humaine & Gianni Schicchi
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In Review > North America

La Voix Humaine & Gianni Schicchi 

Chicago Opera Theater

In REview COT Schicchi hdl 216
The cast of Chicago Opera Theater's production of Gianni Schicchi, featuring Michael Chioldi (center) as the title character
Photo by Michael Brosilow
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Patricia Racette as Elle in COT's staging of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine
Photo by Michael Brosilow

CHICAGO OPERA THEATER entered 2016 on a strong note with two contrasting views of human desperation—Poulenc’s gripping monodrama La Voix Humaine, inspired by Jean Cocteau’s disturbing 1930 play, and Puccini’s rollicking comedy of familial avarice, Gianni Schicchi. 

The unnamed protagonist of the Poulenc (identified only as “Elle”) proved to be an excellent vehicle for soprano Patricia Racette. Racette is gifted with one of the most legit acting techniques on the operatic stage today; whatever the stylistic demands of the music at hand, she unfailingly appears to work from an internalized emotional center. Her tour-de force performance was graced by exceptionally skillful word painting. The soprano was in healthy vocal estate, and while Poulenc’s score does not tax the uppermost register overmuch, her excursions above the staff still reveal a glint of silver. Director/production designer Andreas Mitisek placed the action around 1960. Racette was discovered in a dusky red peignoir, pitifully sleeping with her lover’ suit coat. Through the magic of David Lee Bradke’s stark lighting and Sean Cawelti’s imaginative projections, an angular screen was transformed into a chilly, utilitarian apartment with stucco walls and an eerie, desolate moon spied through the window. The sense of loneliness was palpable. The performance gained an additional note of poignancy in the knowledge that La Voix’s creator, Denise Duval, had passed away only two weeks previously.

The ‘60s visuals continued into the Puccini, as “Elle’s” solitary apartment gave way to a swirling projected environment of psychedelic pink, orange, and lime green with groovy period couture to match. This all created an ambiance of kaleidoscopic chaos as the Donati family squabbled greedily away. One occasionally had the impression the cast had wandered onto the set of The Dating Game, but it was colorful and funny, and framed the mounting’s over-the-top characterizations delightfully. Baritone Michael Chioldi, all done up in oversized glasses and a loud sport jacket that looked like something you have to plug into the wall at night, had an estimable success as Schicchi. He moved his ample, finely burnished voice with fluidity and employed some comical falsetto effects in his ruse as the dying Buoso. Tenor Christopher Tiesi’s bright-toned account of Rinuccio’s paean to Florence provided one of the most purely beautiful vocal pleasures of the evening. Emily Birsan pealed her way through Lauretta’s music prettily, and looked like a vintage Barbie fresh from the box. Barbara Landis brought a plummy mezzo to her covetous Zita. Bruce Hall was the pompous Simone. The Donatis are a prolific lot, but the program amusingly included a family tree to help keep track. Standouts included Scott Ramsay’s hypocritical Gherardo, and Andrew Simpson’s Betto, who apparently hit the scene straight from a Grateful Dead concert.

Conductor Ari Pelto deftly captured the disparate emotional worlds of the two pieces. The playing was excellent throughout, with some particularly fine work from the winds in the Poulenc. As La Voix was given in the original French the choice of English text for the Puccini seemed questionable, especially as the libretto hinges on so many Italianate references (“O mio babbino caro,” arguably opera’s greatest hit, was a trifle compromised in the process). A few pops and squeaks aside however, COT’s double bill was a diverting and very creative theatrical evening.  —Mark Thomas Ketterson 


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