Seattle Opera's recent mainstage revival of Tosca brought a reminder of how elaborately Puccini evokes the city of Rome. Across the water, at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, the company's Young Artists Program is now presenting a thoroughly enjoyable staging of his Florence-centered opera Gianni Schicchi — part of a double bill with Maurice Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges.
The Tuscan capital isn't just a passive backdrop for Puccini's one-act opera — the tenor Rinuccio at one point sings a paean to the beautiful Arno flowing by Santa Croce. Florence is, after all, the city of Dante, who inspired the story that was used by Puccini's librettist Giovacchino Forzano. Gianni Schicchi merits only a brief mention in Canto 30 of the Inferno, where he's been damned for a sort of medieval version of identity theft. This might sound like an odd source for what is Puccini's only comic opera. Then again, Schicchi gets a makeover as an amiable con artist who asks indulgence from the audience after they've witnessed the "extenuating circumstances" for his trickery — which we do indeed in this spirited production.
The double bill represents the annual spring showcase for the Young Artists Program and also gives local opera lovers a chance to see what Peter Kazaras — wrapping up his second season as the Young Artists' artistic director — has been up to. It's a matter whose relevance extends beyond the context of Young Artists. Kazaras has been bruited as a potential heir apparent to Speight Jenkins, and Seattle Opera will conclude next season with his production (initially mounted with Young Artists) of The Marriage of Figaro.
Gianni Schicchi is short but presents an intriguing set of musico-dramatic challenges since it's essentially a tight-knit ensemble piece, and overplaying the laughs can create speed bumps that impede Puccini's impeccable sense of comic timing (this was the final opera he completed, which makes you regret all the more that Puccini waited so long to indulge what turns out to be a remarkable gift for opera buffa).
Kazaras builds on strengths that made for such memorable fun in last year's Falstaff — an opera which in fact has its echoes in Puccini's one-act entertainer. Nothing gets swept aside as an irrelevant detail in Kazaras's theatrically rooted and riveting sensibility. Again, as in Falstaff, he shows a playful penchant for framing devices that emphasize the theatrical dimension of opera and amplify musical motivations. This production moves Gianni Schicchi from its originally medieval setting to modern-day Florence. It opens before Puccini's score — several minutes before, in fact, with a risky choice that pays off — with a scene-setting ensemble pantomime: The rich old Buoso Donati is on his deathbed (channeling a bit of Molière's Le malade imaginaire — except this time he really is deathly ill). His extended family circles about like a kettle of vultures, hypocritically mourning as they wait to get their hands on his will — which, to their horror, leaves everything to the monks. As they claw their way around the patriarch's swanky Florentine quarters — decked out with a giant flat-screen TV and Giotto frescoes in Yoshi Tanokura's nifty set — it's clear this clan has relatives who emigrated to America and interbred with the Sopranos.
The trickster of the title shows up in a track suit (one of many hilarious touches in Daniel Urlie's over-the-top costumes), ready to save the day by impersonating old Buoso and dictating a new will. Schicchi redirects the wealth back to the family but of course keeps the good stuff for himself (including Buoso's prime real estate). The Donatis can't denounce Schicchi since they've implicated themselves in the scheme, punishment for which means banishment from Florence (hence the odes to the city). But Schicchi's self-serving con also enables the one nice Donati, Rinuccio, to marry his daughter Lauretta. The young couple opens the window to let in the opera's relatively spare rays of Puccini's patented lyricism.
Kazaras gets his talented cast to do terrific ensemble work, and the acting always complements rather than contradicts Puccini's score of busy, bustling rhythms. Conductor Brian Garman is making his debut with Young Artists and shows a deft grasp of the music's constantly shifting character despite some problems of balance with the singers. The cast configurations change at each performance: The one I caught last Sunday featured bass-baritone Michael McGee as Schicchi. McGee brought lots of vocal variety and motivated stage presence to his amusing portrayal. Noah Baetge's powerhouse tenor was a bit too stentorian in his ode to Florence (literally overpowering the chamber orchestra used in this reduction of the original scoring) but blended rapturously with Megan Hart's Lauretta (who sang the opera's most-famous tune, "O mio babbino caro," with a fitting hint of unsentimental sauciness). I was especially taken with the wonderful vignettes etched by tenor Marcus Shelton as a volatile Gherardo and by Margaret Gawrysiak's side-splitting Zita, with icy glares that could fell big game.
Gianni Schicchi was originally written as the finale to Puccini's "triptych" of one acts that range across the emotional map, but it's often staged with short operas by other composers. I was delighted to see the choice of Ravel's seldom-done L'enfant et les sortilèges from 1925 as the opener: so much so that I regret having to report it ends up detracting from the program's success as a whole. Ravel's phantasmagoric score is based on a libretto by Colette (rendered Enchanted Child here and translated into Jonathan Dean's pungently witty surtitles). This "lyrical fantasy" has inspired the likes of Maurice Sendak to cope with its odd stage demands, in which a tantrum-prone child (played by a mezzo) gets a taste of his own medicine when his bedroom furniture and objects spring to life to confront him for his misbehavior.
Kazaras makes a bold move here by reimagining the scenario as taking place on the platform of a New York City subway station. The Child suggests a latchkey tween in Elizabeth Pojanowski's portrayal and inspires the ire of fellow commuters he's used to tormenting. The opera's healing moment of transformation occurs at the stop known as "Garden Park." It's an interesting idea but stalls out in practice as a "concept" that simply accounts for too few of the colors of Ravel's ravishingly magical score — a deficit made even more apparent in the reduced version for flute, cello, and piano (although Alicia SuÃÂ¡rez's solo flute work was utterly beguiling). Flickering fluorescent lights (designed by Connie Yun) create a surreal visual texture that feels closer to Stephen King than Colette. All of which would be terrifically atmospheric for another opera but somehow just doesn't seem to mesh with Ravel.
Still, Kazaras again shows his flair for inspiring well-calibrated ensemble from his singers. Marcus Shelton leaves another memorable impression in his turn as Arithmetic. Indeed the vocal strengths of the Young Artists — which include meaningful interpretation as well as attention to vocal production — get a nice workout in the opera's series of cameos, especially Stephanos Tsirakoglou's Tree, Leena Chopra's Shepherdess, Eugene Chan's Clock, David Lara's Cat, and David Korn's plaintive Squirrel. Emily Hindrichs nearly steals the show with her multiple roles as a Mohawk-sporting punk (for Fire) and an enchantingly mellifluous Fairy Princess.