Cher Public

The piccolo on the hearth

Soprano and baritone as lovers are the operatic equivalent of a mixed marriage, and if you give them Dickensian names like Dot and John Peerybingle – well, just try to sing that in Italian, or apostrophize “Dot” with romantic yearning. The concluding consonant defies you. (A less courageous librettist would have transformed her into Dora or Dorothea, but not here.)  

It’s a positive relief when a misunderstanding causes jealous anguish – oh great! we sigh; Riccardo Zandoni’s Il Grillo del Focolare is an opera after all. Cast them with Megan Monaghan’s luxurious soprano, and Weston Hurt, a true Verdi baritone with sweeping power and emotional range, and it doesn’t matter how you pronounce Peerybingle. Opera has achieved liftoff.

Zandonai, like so many opera composers, hangs on in the repertory by the thread of a single work, in his case the infrequently revived Francesca da Rimini, a dreary tale of brief, doomed love, drawn out to excessive but scenic length. Francesca, redolent of art nouveau perfume though it be, does not display Zandonai at his best.

One of the missions of Teatro Grattacielo, which has been presenting concert versions of Verismo curiosities for a quarter century now, has been to revive the lesser-known (or more-forgotten) Zandonai operas along with those of Alfano, Leoncavallo, Giordano et al.  Last Saturday, at the Gerald Lynch Theater, they gave their third Zandonai piece, and each of them has proved worthier of notice than Francesca.

The latest offering shows us the man in 1905, at 22 years of age, aspiring to a comic opera derived from one of Charles Dickens’s renowned Christmas stories. Four or five operas had already been made on “The Cricket on the Hearth” in various languages. Even English. All are forgotten today.

The score is full of charming melody, the orchestration adept and brilliant. Domestic themes soar like Strauss in one of his homebody moods, but if Zandonai knew the early Strauss tone poems, only the technique rubbed off: The line is clean, a soothing, tuneful backdrop to a story full of Dickensian sentiment. There is substance here, not bombast.

So why was the opera not a huge hit? Why is it unknown today? The problem, it seems to me, is that nothing memorable sticks out. There are no popular arias for excerpt or encore. Puccini, with such tunes, was careful to foreground them: a hint or two in the orchestration, but then the heroine would tell her story, and we would take the tune and the lady to heart.

Zandonai, born a generation later, perhaps feared such a style was old-fashioned. He was aiming for modern music-drama. The singers declaim, and Zandonai knew how to write for the voice, feelingly, without excessive strain over a sizable orchestra. But they do not break off to present themselves, to stop the show for applause. Too, there is a decided paucity of concertato.

If Zandonai had been of Puccini’s generation – or, say, Donizetti’s – sometime before Italians began to feel they had to apologize for stopping the show while the singer put over a big tune that would stick in the mind and play on the barrel organs – he might, with his gifts, have had a much livelier career. In the meantime, we have Il Grillo del Focolare (the household cricket in question represented by piccolo), which is a very pleasant way to pass the time.

The interplay of love stories on Christmas Eve circles around John and Dot Peerybingle. Their old friend Caleb Plummer has lost wealth and hope with his son, the long-vanished sailor Edward, and is evidently in debt to stingy old Tackleton who, to add injury to insult, plans to marry Edward’s fiancee, May Fielding. Caleb spends his time describing his shack in grandiose terms to his remaining child, Berta, who is blind and credulous and thinks the place the lap of luxury.

But what if Edward should turn up (disguised) and Dot should get him married to May before Tackleton finds out? Well, John might see Dot with the stranger and suspect all sorts of things is what. Without a hurt, the heart is hollow, eh? But it’s Christmas. All ends well enough.

After a ragged start, Israel Gursky led the small orchestra in a highly agreeable performance, hinting at treasures to be had from a full-scale reading of this very well-judged score. The singers were allowed to pace themselves and find the emotional core of the work. The somewhat treacly conclusion, all conflicts reconciled and an offstage church service enhancing the holiday mood (a couple of useful minutes’ work from the Cantori New York), produced the proper Dickensian curtain.

What draws audiences to Teatro Grattacielo, besides the eccentric charm of so many of these scores, is the opportunity to hear some striking young singers bring them to life. Megan Monaghan, the adorable, unpronounceable Dot, has a velvety soprano and a radiant way of presenting herself. Some of her top notes rang a little hollow in the long opening monologue (don’t you hate composers who don’t let their singers warm up?), but in just a scene or two, she was in full control of a long evening of rearranging lives and reconciling with her jealous spouse.

Weston Hurt, unfamiliar to me, had the Leonard Warren-esque warmth for a Rigoletto or Nabucco (both of which he sings) or Miller or Renato. His long, tortured declamation at the opening of Act III, when he suspects his wife of taking a lover, was the only vocalism of the night that aroused an interruption of applause. Had it been an aria (with a cabaletta for the part where he relents and decides she’s right to leave him), folks would have shaken the rafters.

Scott Joiner sang the long-lost sailor, partly in vocal disguise as a rude old tramp. It’s not much of a part, but Joiner demonstrated theatrical talent and a most agreeable light tenor. John Robert Green, another well-schooled baritone as Caleb, was called upon to pluck our heartstrings with his imaginative lies to his blind daughter.

Bass Erik Kroncke played the malicious Tackleton, a role the composer cannot bring himself to make truly evil. Teresa Buchholz sang blind Berta with some gorgeous near-contralto tones, but her voice turned dry on the bottom of this extremely wide-ranging role.

The comments of certain opera-loving friends suggest to me that Teatro Grattacielo did not publicize this event as widely as it might have. The music and the singers were worthy of a fuller house.

  • It’s good to have access to these rare works. They don’t all deserve oblivion.

  • QuantoPainyFakor
  • Nelly della Vittoria

    (doing best Rosa Raisa impersonation) “No, no, maestro, the name is not Turandoe; it is Tu-ran-DOTT as Puccini himself said!”

    Where do I petition for a Consonants in Dickens opera, performed with an all-Italian cast, with Mr M’Choakumchild and Tudor Stiltstockings in starring baritone roles?

    • John Yohalem

      Did she really say that? I’d trust Rosa on the question ahead of just about anybody.

      • La Cieca

        Did Raisa work with Puccini on this? I mean, he died in 1924 and the opera was not performed until 1926.

      • Nelly della Vittoria

        No, no, I am a big idiot and have remembered it backwards! She in fact says Puccini endorsed the “-doe” ending. I’m sure I’ve heard more of this conversation at some point, but a fragment of it lives on YT here: https://youtu.be/v9W7vnCAYQ8?t=9m