Baltimore Concert Opera’s Gianni Schicchi and Buoso’s Ghost: Seven Revelations

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Gianni Schicchi (1918) is an opera by composer Giacomo Puccini and librettist Giovacchino Forzano.  Buoso’s Ghost (1996) by composer and librettist Michael Ching is a comedic sequel to Schicchi and an excellent pairing for Schicchi.  I attended the April 15 performance of these two operas by Baltimore Concert Opera.  I took my son and two of his college friends with me, not intending to write a blog report, just to enjoy the operas and my accomplices' company.  But then I started to think about what we had experienced.

Briefly for Gianni Schicchi, a wealthy Italian landowner, Buoso Donati, has died, and to the horror of his relatives, his will leaves his entire fortune to a monastery.  The Donati clan engages Gianni Schicchi, a man of a lower class but known for his shrewdness, to change the will before it is filed.  He accepts in order to allow his daughter to marry into their social class, but his ideas for the new will and theirs aren’t exactly a match.  Buoso’s Ghost, picks up where Schicchi leaves off with more comedic, but darker revelations, especially about how Buoso was dispatched.  This pairing of operas made for a consistently funny and heart-warming afternoon’s entertainment.  Mr. Ching’s music is pleasant and enjoyable, but to no one’s surprise, it the great Puccini’s music that carries the day, including perhaps the most famous aria in the opera repertoire, "O mio babbino caro".

Sean Anderson who plays Gianni Schicchi and Sara Duchovnay who plays Lauretta. Photos courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

With 14 singers in all in this performance, the stage was often crowded.  All of the cast performed well. I will only single out a few for comment.  Sean Anderson playing Gianni Schicchi easily makes himself the center of attention with a strong baritone voice and an equally strong stage presence.  He gave the standout closing lines for each opera with just the right touch.  Soprano Sara Duchovnay as Lauretta delivered an enjoyable “O mio babbino caro” and possesses a voice of distinctive coloration.  Tenor Kirk Dougherty singing Rinuccio is especially impressive when singing the softer passages of his arias.  Baritone Matthew Curran, in his second consecutive appearance with BCO, sang the role of Simone with a steadying presence among a peripatetic crew.  And I very much enjoyed Aurelian Eulert’s piano accompaniment.

 The will is read in a production photo by Opera Delaware: seated left to right - Orin Strunk, Dana MacIntosh, Claudia Chapa, Andrew Pardini; standing left to right - Hans Tashjian, Alexandra Rodrick, Matthew Curran, Kirk Dougherty. Courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The will is read in a production photo by Opera Delaware: seated left to right - Orin Strunk, Dana MacIntosh, Claudia Chapa, Andrew Pardini; standing left to right - Hans Tashjian, Alexandra Rodrick, Matthew Curran, Kirk Dougherty. Courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Going to the opera can be educational as well as fun, of course, and I found this opera pairing to be revelatory in seven ways:

Revelation #1: Gianni Schicchi was written as part of a triptych named Il Trittico, three one-act operas meant to be performed as a group.  Under pressure, Puccini finally agreed to allow them to be performed separately and paired with other operas.  The other two parts, Il tabarro and Suor Angelica are darker in nature and also performed separately; an intact Il Trittico is rarely performed today.

Revelation #2: Gianni Schicchi is Puccini’s only comedic opera and is his penultimate opera; he didn’t live to finish his final opera, Turandot.  Giuseppe Verdi ended his opera composing career with Falstaff, his only comedy.  Were they finally able to loosen up and write a comedy after so much success with drama and tragedy?  Or, near the end, did they see their lives with such drama as comedies instead?  Perhaps unlikely, given the tragedy in Verdi's life, but If they had lived longer, would we have seen more comedies?

Revelation #3: The conductor for these performances was Michael Ching, the composer and librettist for Buoso’s Ghost. How cool is that!  Ghost is the fourth of his 13 operas; his opera Speed Dating Tonight! Is among the most often performed American operas.  I highly recommend the short interview conducted by Julia Cooke, BCO's Executive Director, with Mr. Ching in the BCO blog; he talks about elements of Buoso's Ghost and a special change he made to the opera just for soprano Sara Duchovnay's abilities!

Revelation #4: There was more acting in these performances than is typical with concert opera, a bonus for the audience.  The reason for this is that these performers had already been working together for presenting these two operas as fully staged versions for Opera Delaware on April 29 and May 5.  Mr. Ching will also conduct these performances.  Collaborations like this are definitely a benefit for BCO fans and to be encouraged.

Revelation #5: “O mio babbino caro” is an extraordinarily popular aria and often performed in recitals and on recordings.  But, do you know what the aria is about or its context? Unless you have seen Gianni Schicchi (pronounced like Johnny Ski’-key), probably not.  It sounds beautiful, but what’s up?  Here are the lyrics in English from Wikipedia:

Oh my dear papa,
I love him, he is handsome, handsome.
I want to go to Porta Rossa
To buy the ring!

Yes, yes, I want to go there!
And if I loved him in vain,
I would go to the Ponte Vecchio,
but to throw myself in the Arno!

I am anguished and tormented!
Oh God, I'd want to die!
Papa, have pity, have pity!
Papa, have pity, have pity!

Sounds Juliet-ish, as in Romeo and Juliet, right? But the lyrics don’t tell the whole story.  In this scene, Lauretta is singing about her love for Rinuccio and her desire to marry him; she is singing to her father, Gianni Schicchi.  But no need to call 911.  She is serious about her love, but she has no real intention of doing herself in; moreover, she is trying to manipulate her father to intervene so she can marry Rinuccio – please do this for your daughter you love so much.  In BCO’s version, Ms. Duchovnay sang it with a coquettish flair.  It is still a great aria, but now you know the rest of the story.

Take a listen to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing it in this YouTube video:

Revelation #6: In the last couple of years I have become a huge fan of concert opera.  There are many benefits to concert opera.  One of the great benefits in attending concert opera is often having the chance to hear excellent operas that, for various logistical reasons, are not often performed by the major opera companies.  If you wished to see Buoso’s Ghost this season, this production (Baltimore and Wilmington) is your only chance. 

Revelation #7: BCO’s 2018-2019 season was revealed by Ms. Cooke, for the most part; the season ending production is yet to be revealed: Don Giovanni, L’Amico Fritz, The Flying Dutchman, and one TBA.  One of the productions for next season, L’Amico Fritz by Pietro Mascagni, is unknown to me and I am now excited to see it; as far as I can determine, it may be our only chance to see that one next year anywhere.

Bottom line - My accomplices had viewed a video of Gianni Schicchi just a week before attending these performances; they thought Schicchi a great comedy and were anxious to see Buoso’s Ghost.  They left happy.  For me, as always, hearing BCO’s professional opera singers perform in the posh, yet cozy Engineers Club ballroom is a delight, and this was no exception.  The BCO staff does everything possible to make opera feel like home.  Baltimore Concert Opera productions often seem more like a soiree than a concert. 

The Fan Experience:  I am usually able to find on-street parking near BCO’s venue, the Engineers Club of Baltimore, but this time, an accident on the Baltimore Beltway caused me to arrive only two minutes before time for the opera to start.  For speed, I used the valet parking (available on Sundays only; my cost was $15 plus tip), which worked out very nicely; I made it to my seat on time.  Actually, the performance start was delayed for ten minutes due to traffic problems – two of the singers were late!

Note added on 4/23/18: The fully staged versions of Gianni Schicchi and Buoso's Ghost to be presented on April 29 and May 5 are part of Opera Delaware's 2018 Puccini Festival, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Il Trittico.  They are presenting Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, the other two parts of the Trittico, on April 28 and May 6.