Review: LA Opera’s “Gianni Schicchi” and ”Pagliacci” Have Their Distinct Charms

Peabody Southwell, Plácido Domingo, Arturo Chacon-Cruz, Meredith Arwardy and Philip Cokorinos in “Gianni Schicchi” (Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera)

Peabody Southwell, Plácido Domingo, Arturo Chacon-Cruz, Meredith Arwardy and Philip Cokorinos in “Gianni Schicchi” (Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera)

The Los Angeles Opera opened its 30th season with one of the titans of opera, Plácido Domingo, appearing as both performer and conductor in a double bill of operas, Giacomo Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” Domingo performed the title role for the former, yet ceded the stage for the latter to act as the conductor. While both of the productions were magnificent, they served as stark contrasts to the other, which should be no surprise considering the first was staged by Woody Allen, who brings his trademark wit to the comic opera by Puccini, and the second by Franco Zeffirelli, who stages the second with the sense of pageantry and melodrama for which he is best known.

The performance by Domingo in the title role of “Gianni Schicchi” may be the draw for this opera, but the staging was pure Woody Allen. An opera would seem an unlikely medium by which Allen could use his well-honed verbal dexterity, but the Annie Hall director found a way to incorporate it, beginning the piece with title cards that served as Italian-language puns. The opera, which concerns the attempts by a wealthy family to change the will of their patriarch so that they receive the inheritance promised to a monastery, often had the feel of the scenes Allen frequently revisits of his childhood in the Bronx. Domingo’s Schicchi was presented with the swagger that Allen gives to the mafioso of Bullets Over Broadway (The opera takes place in Florence, but Schicchi hails from Sicily, of course.).

Domingo dominated the opera with his booming voice and comic timing, but it is a credit to “Gianni Schicchi” that the long opening scene before his introduction never suffered from his absence. While Domingo may be the star, this was an ensemble where not every character gets a solo, but every single one got a laugh. The show-stopping moment did not come from Domingo, however; Andriana Chuchman as Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta, performed the well-known “O Mio Babbino Caro” with such power and grace that even this standard felt new and surprising.

Marco Berti in “Pagliacci” (Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera)

Marco Berti in “Pagliacci” (Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera)

The staging of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” served as a contrast to the shenanigans of “Gianni Schicchi.” While Allen played the first as a controlled, door-slamming farce with a certain starkness, which served to better to highlight the comic stylings of the singers supporting Domingo, Zeffirelli played up the pageantry of the tale of the tragic clown. Zeffirelli may have made his name as a director while Baz Luhrmann was still in diapers, but there was a touch of the Moulin Rouge! madman’s frenetic energy to the staging. This was a sharp change, yet entirely appropriate. A tale about a homicidal clown does not lend itself to subtlety, nor should it.

If there was a sense of disappointment to the staging of “Pagliacci,” it was that Domingo did not perform the title role himself, although at age 74, his appearance might be inappropriate for the lead even as his voice could surely handle its demands. This should not be considered a slight to Marco Berti, who performed admirably as Canio the clown and did a rousing version of the most famous composition from the opera, “Vesti la Giubba,” or to Ana Maria Martinez, who matches him as his wife. It would be unfair to judge them wanting simply because neither has the name recognition of a member of the Three Tenors, even if audiences inevitably will.

Which of the two operas of “Schicchi/Pagliacci” audiences prefer depends entirely on personal preference. Those whose tastes gravitate toward the comedic should prefer “Schicchi,” while fans of the tragic may prefer “Pagliacci.” Both have their distinct charms, and both Woody Allen and Franco Zeffirelli owe their success staging each opera to the talents of Plácido Domingo, whether his role is on the stage or below it.

“Schicci/Pagliacci” runs Sept. 27 at 2 p.m. and Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. For tickets and more information, visit laopera.org

Jeremy Ross is a Staff Reporter for Living Out Loud - LA, covering entertainment.

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