As Gianni Schicchi implacably rolls a cigarette at the end of Opera Holland Park’s new production of Puccini’s one-acter bearing the character's name, he begs the audience to look to the extenuating circumstances of his roguish behaviour and forgive him his earthly transgressions. True, the poet Dante may have consigned him to the eighth circle of hell in his Divine Comedy for posturing as a dead man in order to rewrite his will in his own favour. Yet as his elated daughter and her lover, only now free to marry, embrace on a parapet overlooking Florence, the moon shining above them, he asks for forgiveness in recognition of what he has done for them. Such is the power of Puccini’s music and his libretto’s comedy that we allow him this without hesitation.
So might Opera Holland Park’s Italianate double-bill, pairing Schicchi with Mascagni’s seldom heard Zanetto, plead exoneration for the latter in light of the joy of the former. Make no mistake, it is to OHP’s credit that they are willing to gamble on less familiar works, and a chance to hear a rarity such as Zanetto is nothing to scoff at. Mascagni is an apt composer to pair with Puccini; both Tuscan composers wrote music that bristles with Italian fervour and romance, both wrote their masterworks within close temporal proximity to the other. The two works themselves centre on navigations of love and money, and both feature stories based in a Florence long past. As two concise one-act operas by Italian masters, the pieces seem an intriguing complement to one another. It is only that in practice Zanetto is so slight a work compared to Schicchi, the burnished and overflowing wit of the latter – elevated by the unforgettable threads of “O mio babbino caro”, and all in less than an hour – cannot but highlight by contrast the relative flimsiness of the other.
The opening of Zanetto is promising enough, an offstage chorus intoning a wordless melody of understated atmosphere and beauty. The redolence to Mascagni’s triumph, Cavalleria rusticana is not lost; the music is interlaced with a similarly idyllic Italian romance. Once the work itself begins, the musical idiom of its pared down orchestra is simple and elegant, sweeping strings are its predominant voice, adorned by gentle phrasing from the flutes in more tender passages. The City of London Sinfonia under Manlio Benzi bore this out with feeling, evoking all the poignancy there is to be had in Mascagni’s compact score. With the added resonance of a harp to grant life to the minstrel Zanetto’s thrumming on his lute, and a few horns to lend stature to the conclusion, the orchestra was efficient and, at times, lovely.
With fair contributions from the Zanetto of Patricia Orr and the Sylvia of Janice Watson, I fear the blame for the torpor of the piece must be laid mostly at the weakness of the text and the inability of Mascagni’s writing fully to compensate. The story, taken from Francois Coppée’s play Le passant, tells of Sylvia, a wealthy courtesan who believes herself doomed never to know the bliss of true love and companionship. She encounters by chance a young wandering minstrel, Zanetto, to whom she is immediately attracted; despite the youth’s appeals, she sends him away, convinced she would not bring him happiness. The drama, simple though it is, contains a certain beauty. Dubbed a ‘lyric scene’ by Mascagni rather than a full opera, it is easy to see its potential as a chamber work both intimate and heartbreaking. One might think of Sylvia as a precursor to Strauss’s Marschallin, another character who sacrifices her own happiness for the sake of a younger man she loves deeply. That comparison does Zanetto no favours. The heartrending simplicity of the Marschallin’s speech, the nobility innate in von Hofmannsthal’s character and the breathtaking majesty of Strauss’s music – none of this is achieved even in barest adumbration by Sylvia. Her speech is, by contrast, melodramatic and self-pitying. Mascagni’s score plays up her internal angst with a sweep that hints more at saccharine cliché than real emotion. Ms. Watson made the best of the part she could, though I never entirely warmed to a harsh quality in her timbre, and felt she rather overplayed the misery of her character. Even so, her singing was impressive, as was that of Ms. Orr. Impressively done up to look like a boy with short, cropped hair and boots, Ms. Orr succeeded quite well in capturing the youthful innocence of the travelling minstrel.
Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production, featuring designs by Susannah Henry, was traditional and charming. The action was moved to the interior of Sylvia’s home, evoked by antique paintings of Sylvia, flowers, bottles of champagne, and a chair and chaise longue brocaded in reds and pinks. It seemed a bit silly to have Zanetto break in, smashing the glass in the front door, but never mind. I did think this was one of those cases where a more interventionist directorial hand might have proved effective, a more pronounced touch perhaps instilling the interest the libretto in itself does not. In the end, the melodramatic acting and simple gestures of the characters did little to inspire real feeling in the viewer, though at least it didn’t contravene Mascagni’s score.
In an attempted comparison to Mascagni’s own compositional slump, a programme note by Adrian Mourby asserts the slightness of several of Puccini’s later works, positing La Rondine as ‘a piece that barely justifies its three acts’. Yet Puccini was a master of compressing a tremendous amount of emotional resonance into a sparse, diminutive framework, and any of the three acts of Rondine taken in isolation proves memorable in a way no measure of Zanetto can equal. The same is true of Gianni Schicchi, the inspired eloquence of “O mio babbino caro” – winningly sung here by the Lauretta of Anna Patalong – bespeaking in one glance the entire emotional undercurrent of the piece.
Here Mr. Lloyd-Evans’s production came more into its own. If none of it was exactly unfamiliar (the sleek twentieth-century update brought to mind Richard Jones’s production for Covent Garden) it was nonetheless comically effective and altogether delightful. It opens with Buoso Donati in bed struggling to breathe. Gradually, more and more of his vulturous family enter the room, all impatiently waiting for the allotted moment in which to pounce. Finally, when the room is full and the tension mounted as fully as it could be, Buoso expires at last. The strings crash to life, the orchestra races with jubilance under Mr. Benzi’s well-timed direction and we’re off, the drama scarcely slackening until Schicchi’s inevitable triumph, illumined by the utter happiness of Lauretta and Rinuccio.
Though the staging might not win through its freshness, Schicchi is not a work that particularly calls for innovation. It demands fleet, dynamic conducting, clever and naturally humorous direction, a pair of likeable, well-sung lovers, and an ensemble cast fully capable of bringing out the sparkling joy inherent in the work. Happily, all of this was present in abundance, joined together by the splendid Schicchi of Alan Opie, whose commanding presence, convinced both in sly characterisation and his sonorous baritone; one never doubted the venal Donati clan had little chance against his scheming. The latter was represented by a near faultless ensemble headed by the marvellous Zita of Carole Wilson and the Simone of William Robert Allenby. The remaining roles were all well taken by Neal Cooper, Sarah Redgwick, Simon Wilding, Charles Johnston, Catrin Johnsson, Aidan Smith, John Lofthouse, Niall Windass, Dickon Gough, and Mark Spyropoulos. Special mention goes to the Rinuccio of Jung Soo Yun – Mr. Yun’s tenor is agile and winsome, and he was one of the standouts of the evening – and the aforementioned Lauretta of Ms. Patalong. It is never easy to tackle a piece of music famous enough to carry high expectations from every member of the audience, and her “O mio babbino caro” was sweet and radiant. The final scene finds the set rolling back to reveal the two young lovers embracing on a high parapet overlooking the Duomo and the spires of Florence, a perfect ending to an enchanting performance.
So, three stars for Zanetto – with an acknowledged nod to Opera Holland Park for its decision to grant us a hearing of this interesting, if underwhelming, piece – and four and a half for a thoroughly entertaining Gianni Schicchi. Even if Zanetto strikes me as a bit insipid, it is perhaps worth catching purely for its rarity; and with a second act featuring as marvellous an ensemble performance as the Puccini, one will not be sorry one has experienced the Mascagni to reach it.
John E de Wald
Photographs (c) Fritz Curzon