LA Opera opened their 30th season with a pairing of two of their most popular productions, both of which were initially staged by filmmakers not unfamiliar with the vagaries of our industry outpost here in Hollywoodland. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, directed by Woody Allen was paired with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  

Naturally we’d be absolutely nowhere without our founding father, erstwhile tenor turned baritone, Artistic Director and guru, Placido Domingo. As a matter of fact, I think Placido was actually the one who discovered we had a Music Center downtown with an opera house. So naturally he was invited to not only star on opening night but conduct it as well. When this proved too much of a logistical challenge, even for a man with three arms, it was decided that putting on two operas in one evening was the only way to satiate the Spaniard.

Our Grand Seigneur even wrote a piece for the program about how important he felt it was to involve the Hollywood creative community in the opera culture downtown by inviting august filmmakers to try their hand at the lyric stage. Subsequently we’ve seen Herbert Ross’ (Footloose, Lost Horizon) La Boheme, Bruce Beresford’s (Driving Miss Daisy) Rigoletto, John Schlesinger’s (Midnight Cowboy) Peter Grimes, William Friedkin’s (The Exorcist) Bluebeard’s Castle and the remaining two Trittico operas of Puccini, Maximilian Schell’s take on Lohengrin and Der Rosenkavalier and Marthe Keller’s Lucia di Lammermoor.  There was even actual serious talk of a Ring cycle with George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic company supplying the effects!

Allen’s production of Gianni Schicchi starts, not surprisingly, with a film. Black and white credits roll under the kind of background music they play at Buca di Beppo and we get five minutes of pseudo-Italian double-entendre the likes of “Starring Fiorenza Fellacio.” You don’t have to be a fortune-teller to see that what follows isn’t going to be a Noel Coward cocktail sipper. It is Schicchi after all and Puccini and his librettist Giovacchino Forzano packed it full of gags of the sight and musical variety.  Mr. Allen, no stranger to schtick, gives us Florence in the 50’s, the 1950’s that is, Vittorio De Sica style.  He also makes full and clever use of all the comic opportunities presented to him including a delicious running bit where the corpse is actually in full sight of the audience throughout.

Grant Gershon, who also heads the Los Angeles Master Chorale and is our Resident Conductor, whipped the LA Opera Orchestra into the hurlyburly of Puccini’s orchestrations which is where so much of the humor in this piece lies. Ensembles were kept tight and a wonderfully adept and youthful cast were given just enough space to breath and land their bits of business. Special mention needs to go the alpha Zita of Meredith Arwady, in her LA Opera debut, whose pungent voice and brazen presence led her easily to assume the mantle of matriarch. Peabody Southwell, tarted up for La Ciesca like a woman whose makeup mirror is her best friend, had plenty of bella figura to go around and used it, and her chianti colored mezzo, with canny aplomb.

The Rinuccio of Arturo Chacón-Cruz got his sea legs underneath him just in time to deliver a youthful and spirited account of his paean to Florence and its wonders. Pardon me a moment if I gush but I thought I was literally immune to the charms of “O mio babbino caro” until our evening’s Lauretta, Andriana Chuchman, spun out the most perfectly judged rendition of it I think I have ever heard. She sang in phrases, not notes, and every breath was like the a details on a cameo brooch. Her voice is gleaming and even and there wasn’t a hint of routine which says quite a bit for the performance of an old warhorse like that. Brava! They were both especially charming and romantic in their duettino at the finale.

Naturally when Maestro Domingo arrived, there was an enormous round of applause from a grateful audience of star worshipers. But you hear grumblings at intermission. “Well, he doesn’t sound like a baritone!” is one such. This is true. He still sounds like like the tenor he has always been, just lower. He also had the largest and most sonorous voice of anyone on that stage all evening and it carried easily into the slightly dull acoustics of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion beautifully.

Schicchi tests his theatrical mettle far more than his vocal resources and there it’s a shrewd fit for a man whose career will obviously only end with an undertaker present. He came on costumed as a Mafia don in pinstripes and fedora and ended up in a dressing gown, changing in full sight of the audience while the ladies of the cast sang their siren trio and fluttered about him like Rhinemaidens of the Arno. His gifts as a comedian, though, were less than revelatory.

The venerable Santo Loquasto designed the grandiose set with its iron spiral staircase curling up onto a grand balcony overlooking the Duomo in the distance all in shades of glorious black and white. His costumes followed the same monochromatic suit and were apt and stylish for the period. I do disagree with making Lauretta a moll to the point of her packing heat in a garter holster but Mr. Allen’s final bit of business—Zita sticking a shiv into Schicchi—took me by surprise and actually facilitated the spoken epilogue rather brilliantly. Kathleen Smith Belcher minded Woody’s playbook for this revival and I think a fine time was had by all.

For anyone who felt cheated by the lack of color in the first half of the evening, Mr. Zeffirelli’s production of Pagliacci, revived by Stefano Trespidi, made up for it with a vengeance. This is Zeffirelli at his most cynical. Long gone is the idyllic Tuscan countryside locale of his previous productions. This show takes place in Naples underneath a massive freeway overpass adjacent to a 3-story apartment building teeming with people and covered with laundry on the line. It’s also about 1960 here and there are jeans and t-shirts and motorcycles onstage. Franco, you made me feel dirty.

But first George Gagnidze stepped out in front of Tony Duquette’s 1964 starburst front curtain lit up like circus night and delivered a prologue that did not suffer audibility problems. It was nice to hear some old fashioned opera singing for the deaf and Mr. Gagnidze is the rare baritone who doesn’t look like he’s just moving his mouth when the orchestra hits forte. He hits back. His costume, courtesy of Raimonda Gaetani, was executed in full Zeffirellian overkill and I was frankly disappointed when it didn’t light up.

Then the curtains parted, revealing a circus coming to town. I noted few surprises in the staging itself aside from the fact that it seemed at times the choristers and supers outnumbered the audience. Sadly, Canio’s “Un tal gioco” went for almost nothing because I think an elephant walked by while the tenor was singing it. As the performance progressed It started to dawn on me the real problem wasn’t the overzealous staging so much as the Canio of Marco Berti. Talk about your opera for the deaf!

The crowds disperse and we have the moment when Nedda muses on her plight and then sings of freedom with the birds flying overhead. It’s a lovely moment and naturally Zeffirelli gives the soprano space for her introspection by cutting the number of supers onstage down to about 25, not including the tenants in the apartment building watching television of course.

Luckily none of that was a distraction because our Nedda for the evening, Ana Maria Martinez, is one of those rare singers who makes her own spotlight.  She gave a vividly nuanced version of her aria complete with a pinpoint pianissimo high A in the accompanied recit. that she messa di voced gently and seamlessly to a mezzo-forte and then back down to the pianissimo.  No fake shakes on the trill either.

Things got even better when Nedda’s lover Silvio showed up, played by Liam Bonner with movie star good looks and height. We got the full duet with no cuts and honestly I think when it’s done right it’s the best part of the score. Ms. Martinez imbued every phrase with a simmering undercurrent of passion. Mr. Bonner’s performance was more romantically straightforward and he seemed to tire vocally towards the end and his baritone developed an obvious burr.

Finally Mr. Berti was left alone onstage, i.e., in the company of only a half dozen people, to sing the operatic national anthem. It was very loud, which perhaps explained why he seemed to be taking a breath after every word. Cue the thunderous ovation.

The second act was just an orgy of lights and stilt walkers and a lovingly sung romanza from Beppe performed by Brenton Ryan. Ms. Martinez was wonderful even though she had very little to work off of since Mr. Berti was, once again, almost solely concerned with vocal production and volume. As to the Canio v. Tonio decision on the final line, Canio won this time.

The LA Opera Chorus acquitted itself marvelously and Pagliacci is a workout in this staging even before you add the possibility that you might get run over by a super driving a Vespa. Maestro Domingo led the LA Opera Orchestra and although his constant downbeats look like he’s trying to handcrank a lawnmower he is exceptionally good at accompanying singers and he certainly knows where all the tricky spots are.The orchestra itself sounded marvelous and there was real polish in the strings and the two harpists weren’t going to let us leave without hearing every note they had on the page.

A good start to this season, then, and we have a lot more to look forward to.

Photos: LA Opera