Deception, death, intrigue, thwarted love and lots of laughs — opera season is back with a vengeance. After a yearlong hiatus, Opera Theater St. Louis began its outdoor festival season Saturday evening with Giacomo Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” a one-act comic opera.
Palpable anticipation radiated from audience, staff and performers alike before the opening performance. St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conductor laureate Leonard Slatkin, leading SLSO musicians, occupied his seat at the podium well before start time. And the dying Buoso Donati (Chance Jonas-O’Toole) was already in his death bed onstage as ushers guided patrons to their seats.
Everyone was more than ready for not just this opera, but for opera to start once more. In the words of OTSL general director Andrew Jorgensen, “Opera is in bloom again!”
“Gianni Schicchi” is the third in a trilogy of one-act operas titled “Il trittico (The Triptych).” The lighthearted opera takes place in Florence and depicts an event from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The Donati family mourns the loss of its patriarch, Buoso, but after learning that he has left his fortune to a monastery instead of to them, they enlist the help of the upstart Gianni Schicchi to rework the will — with several unexpected results.
After a year without live productions, Opera Theater of St. Louis returns with a reimagined 2021 festival season — in-person, outdoors and socially distanced.
OTSL’s outdoor production was fabulous — well-paced, beautifully sung and tastefully amplified through a better-than-expected sound system thanks to sound designer Steven Colby. The stage is set up on a parking lot adjacent to the Loretto-Hilton Center, OTSL’s usual performance home.
Voices started strong and remained so for the duration. Baritone Levi Hernandez portrayed a wonderful Gianni Schicchi, his nimble voice well matched to the vocal demands of the role. He brought out the ambiguity of his character through shrewd acting countered by beautiful singing.
Soprano Elena Villalón portrayed an amiable Lauretta and sang a charming “O mio babbino caro (Oh My Dear Father),” the only aria in the work.
Tenor Joshua Blue performed a magnificent Rinuccio, likable from the start, lovable by the end. His splendid voice is well suited to the Puccini score with breezy high notes and colorful timbre. His vocals blended superbly with Villalón’s for a most powerful Puccini moment in their final duet.
Contralto La’Shelle Allen played a commanding Zita — funny, as when she reads the will, and full of vocal flair, as when she ridicules Schicchi.
The opera takes place in the bedroom of the dying patriarch with most of the ensemble cast onstage the whole time. Under stage director Seán Curran, the cast remained always in purposeful movement without distracting from the central action.
Tenor Jermaine Smith as Gherardo, soprano Meghan Kasanders as Nella and bass Nathan Stark as Simone all sang their roles well and kept up their faces for the long haul. Under chorus master Kevin Miller, the chorus was in sync with Slatkin and the orchestra all night. A fine performance all around.
Allen Moyer’s single-set design was also thoughtful. A moveable back curtain-wall, at first providing the “mourning” family the cloistered space it needed, opens to reveal Brunelleschi’s dome of the Florence cathedral, complete with birds flying overhead, thanks to video projections designer Greg Emetaz. Costume designer James Schuette’s attention to detail is laudable (Schicchi’s garters!).
If you love the Puccini sound but are not quite ready for one of his long and tragic stories, this opera is for you. The death occurs in the first few minutes, the ending holds delightful twists and the in-between is hilarity at its best.