Sometimes when you find the club that will have you as a member, you do not easily give up your spot. Woody Allen and Plácido Domingo, the main selling points of a new Gianni Schicchi DVD from Los Angeles Opera, recorded in fall 2015, have several things in common.
Both appeared as promising young talents in the 1960s and cemented their legends over the rest of the twentieth century, first by mining obvious strengths and then by branching out and taking risks. Each man could have retired with honors and nothing more to prove at the turn of the millennium, but each has continued to work tirelessly, even compulsively, in advanced age (Allen is 80; Domingo claims 75).
Although triumphs in these later years have been fewer and farther between, both men loom so large in their art forms that it is hard to imagine what eventually will come: movies without the annual Woody film, opera without Plácido preparing his next role. Their successes of recent times have been warmly received, their failures mostly tolerantly indulged.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Allen quipped when preparing the premiere run of this production for LA Opera’s 2008 season. “But incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm.” Some opera buffs took that statement at face value and held it up as another example of What’s Wrong With Opera Today: Puccini’s bite-sized masterpiece had been put in the hands of an inept big-name dilettante. That reading was a mistake. Allen has long been self-deprecating about his filmmaking too, saying, for example, that he is no great director; his casts are so good that all he has to do is tell them when to show up and make sure they have coffee and doughnuts.
By most accounts, a very different Allen shows up on the set. This is the director who has dismissed and replaced several good actors who did not perform to his expectations. He brought Method goddess Geraldine Page to tears by telling her the performance she was giving him (in Interiors) was something he could see on afternoon soaps, and tangled with the temperamental Sean Penn on Sweet and Lowdown. The performances by Page and Penn that followed those skirmishes received Academy Award nominations, as have 16 others in Allen’s films. Allen himself has been nominated 23 times for writing or directing.
Like his idol Ingmar Bergman, who made a classic film of The Magic Flute and also staged The Rake’s Progress (“the most original and beautiful realization of any of my theater pieces that I had ever seen on any stage,” recalled Stravinsky), and like the late Anthony Minghella, Allen shows the knack for opera on his first try. Although Kathleen Smith Belcher oversaw the 2015 revival, this Gianni Schicchi is clearly the creation of a director both theatrically gifted and musically sensitive (he is a musician too). Unlike some who have come to opera via media such as film, music video, Broadway, and “the legitimate stage,” Allen does not take every obvious option and unwittingly serve up clichés. He looks at Schicchi and Lauretta and the grasping Donati relatives with a fresh eye.
Set/costume designer Santo Loquasto, Allen’s production man on two dozen films, gives the director’s 1950s update the look of a black-and-white movie. Projected opening credits are in the understated style of Allen’s usual title sequences: white on black, with “Funiculì, Funiculà” as underscore. These are full of fake Italian surnames on the order of “Fellatio” and “Salmonella.” The projection screen lifts, Puccini’s music begins, and we are in Donati’s two-story Florence home, which receives scenery applause from the Angelenos. Its look is overstuffed, as if someone well off settled there a long time ago, grew old, collected many things and cleared nothing out to make room.
The production works in its share of sight gags. Donati’s will is discovered in a pot of pasta on the stove. Zita lovingly regards a framed photo of that coveted, much-discussed mule. When the dead man is evicted from his bed so Schicchi can take his place, the corpse is propped up and disguised as a beggar. A visitor later falls for it, dropping a coin in the cup. There is a fair amount of smart behavioral detail along with the gags.
The will search has a single-minded, ruthless efficiency that made me think of termites burrowing away. The difference between the relatives’ ostentatious, insincere mourning for Donati’s loss and their real devastation at being disinherited is nicely played. There is some more genuine grieving from a small boy at the very end, following Allen’s unscripted surprise denouement. That ending has been given away in many reviews and is a controversial choice; I approved. The supporting cast is largely made up of young singers, and there is an appealing make-believe quality to aging effects (Simone’s unconvincing wig and moustache, for example), as there is in good sketch comedy.
The cast around the veteran star enters into a spirit of teamwork, but there are several standouts. Meredith Arwady, a contralto of Blytheian physique with a voice of impressive size and depth, is a dominating, very nasty Zita. Bass-baritone Craig Colclough makes a dignified foil as her fellow elder, the pompous Simone. Stacey Tappan (Nella) and Peabody Southwell (La Ciesca) combine with Arwady to blandishing effect in the trio accompanying Schicchi’s dressing-up. Baritone Kihun Yoon sings very beautifully and makes a strong impression as Nicolao, the notary. Bass-baritone E. Scott Levin‘s Maestro Spinelloccio is phantasmagorically vivid; the good doctor might have wandered in from Les contes d’Hoffmann.
Lauretta is no innocent young thing but a ravishing moll, tough enough to threaten Zita with a small blade. Soprano Andriana Chuchman‘s singing and acting give her character an adult elegance and poise. Her “O mio babbino caro” is the showstopper it should be, and it is cleverly directed. Schicchi is in on his own con, but his affection for his daughter makes it not matter. He moves as if to cut her off in mid-song, but then thinks better of it. He wants to hear her out as much as we do. Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz gives the impression of trying too hard with a quality instrument, and Rinuccio’s spotlight opportunities come off rather gusty and overinflated.
Domingo, a mobbed-up Schicchi in pinstripes and spats, with a coat over his shoulders like a cape, gets a warm welcome from the home crowd. Inevitably, some of the potency of his performance comes from who he is rather than what he does. When Schicchi cries “Vittoria! Vittoria!” in a voice that still sounds sizable and well preserved, one recalls Domingo’s Cavaradossi in another of this composer’s operas.
When he chases Donati’s relatives out of the house near the end, it is hard not to think of Otello in “Tutti fuggite” mode. There is a good sense of line in Schicchi’s warning to the relatives on potential consequences of their deception, and an old pro’s knowhow in putting music, words, and good stage direction together with a big personality. This Schicchi, affable and charming rather than bitingly witty, is a serene star turn. In the circumstances, this is enough.
Grant Gershon, leading the LA Opera Orchestra, brings light and clarity to Puccini’s ingenious score, with much well-managed ensemble work. The orchestra’s low strings sound rich and mellow, and the players too seem to be enjoying themselves. One recalls that this opera even won over the late Joseph Kerman, he of the oft-quoted “Tosca, that shabby little shocker…” Image quality on the standard-definition DVD is a bit drab.
“I think a fine time was had by all,” wrote Parterre’s Patrick Mack in his review of this production’s premiere last September, and that holds true for the DVD/Blu-ray release as well. It is a shame the cameras were not kept rolling for the other half of the double bill, a revival of an updated Pagliacci production created by another film/stage éminence grise, Franco Zeffirelli.
The best Schicchi within an integral Trittico DVD is the Richard Jones/Antonio Pappano one for the Royal Opera House, but Los Angeles’s entry is an attractive standalone. Fans of the star and the director can be assured that they are on good behavior. This should count for something against past or future crimes and misdemeanors.