Operatic Frivolities Shortchange the Music

United StatesUnited States Rossini and Puccini: Lio Kuokman (conductor), Curtis Opera Theatre Soloists and Orchestra, Stephanie Havey (director), Brandon McNeel (sets), Amy Sutton (costumes), Christopher J. Frey (lighting), Prince Music Theater, Philadelphia, 21.11.2014 (BJ)

Rossini: La scala di seta
Puccini: Gianni Schicchi

 I have done Lio Kuokman the courtesy of listing his name first in the heading as an acknowledgment of the excellent performances he drew from Curtis Opera Theatre’s orchestra and singers, not to mention the courtesy owed to Rossini and Puccini. Would that Stephanie Havey and her colleagues in the production team had felt a similar obligation to the composers and their music!

Yet again, musical satisfactions were overborne by directorial inanities. In common with too many directors these days, Ms. Havey seems to feel a bigger obligation to soothe those members of her audience who don’t like music and would be upset by having to listen to five minutes of it without visual distraction. The sparkling overture to Rossini’s rarely produced comic opera seemed to be very well played, but it was hard to tell, because all the stage business that was thrust at us on stage made it virtually impossible to concentrate on the music—and so it went all evening.

Ms. Havey evidently has an aversion to ordinary doors. The singers in the Rossini work were constantly forced to make their entrances and exits through a trapdoor in the floor. Since the late Buoso Donati, in Puccini’s more familiar comic masterpiece, had evidently lived in a bank vault, illuminated by a combination of harsh fluorescent tubes and a pretty crystal chandelier, the mode of in-and-egress here was by way of one of those massive old-fashioned circular doors we associate with such places.

In the circumstances, it would be unfair to criticize those directly responsible for the visual aspect of the productions for having done competently enough the work presumably forced on them by the director. And for similar reasons I forbear to name all the young singers who did their best against all odds, beyond congratulating the Rinuccio and Lauretta in the cast I saw (two casts alternated through the four-performance run) on being a thoroughly mellifluous and likeable pair of young lovers: Evan LeRoy Johnson had also been an imposing Dormant in La scala di seta, and Ashley Robillard made the most of the one memorable aria in Puccini’s score, “O mio babbino caro,” singing with skill and charm. Sean Michael Plumb should also be exempted from anonymity in tribute to his convincing and strongly sung portrayal of Puccini’s title character.

It is entirely possible to update a piece like Gianni Schicchi without turning it into annoying nonsense: I saw a production in Seattle a few years ago in which the director, the great Peter Kazaras, came up with one entertaining idea after another. But most of Ms. Havey’s ideas were less entertaining than plain silly. Perhaps the most genuinely comical of them was the notion that a doctor in Philadelphia, to which city the action had been transplanted, would make house-calls. The supertitles didn’t help, with their repeated and improbable assertions that one of the characters, a Philadelphian of obviously US citizenship, had once been “the mayor of Toronto.”

If the spectacle of a limp-wristed pizza delivery guy coming on stage with “Homo Hut” blazoned across his T-shirt strikes you as the acme of hilarity, this might have been just the production for you. But I am depressed by the thought that a school of the Curtis Institute’s generally well deserved reputation seems to be teaching young singers that opera doesn’t have to make sense.
Bernard Jacobson

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