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Desire, Sin, and Family: Opera’s Double Bill

There has been an abundance of comedy in this year’s Juilliard Opera season, but nothing quite like this spring’s double bill: Ravel’s L’heure espagnole and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Fast-paced and dark humored, these one-act comedies each pack quite a vocal and instrumental punch. 

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L’heure espagnole is relatively obscure and Gianni Schicchi is performed frequently, but both are “more about acting than music,” said the production’s conductor, Keri-Lynn Wilson (B.M. ’88, M.M. ’90, flute; M.M. ’93, orchestral conducting), in a recent interview with The Journal. Wilson also conducted Juilliard Opera’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff in 2009. Director Tomer Zvulun is making his Juilliard directing debut with this production and has been on the directing staff of the Metropolitan Opera for three years. He noted that both operas “deal with human desire, uncontrolled hormones, sin, and family and the challenges of belonging to one.” Each plot is character-driven, but, not surprisingly, Schicchi has a strong Italian flair: “It’s all about fiery passion [while] L’heure espagnole is very French—[there’s] more tongue-in-cheek sarcastic humor that’s largely based on double-entendre,” Zvulun said. 

L’heure is layered with nuances and motivic passages including quasi-recitativo, or speechlike musical dialogue. While there are plenty of orchestral intricacies and several distinctively Spanish rhythms and flavors, Ravel strove for the focus to be on the text. L’heure also contains real opéra comique flair while Schicchi is buffo, a style that focuses on human situational comedy. 

The libretto of L’heure espagnole comes from Franc-Nohain’s play of the same title, which means “The Spanish Hour”; the opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on May 19, 1911. The plot unfolds over one hour (hence the name) in Toledo, Spain. Torquemada (Spencer Lang), a clockmaker, is at work in his shop when Ramiro (Andreas Aroditis), a government muleteer, drops by to have his watch repaired. Concepción (Cecilia Hall), Torquemada’s wife, enters and reminds her husband that he should be out tending to the municipal clocks. As he hurries out, Concepción’s lovers begin to arrive, first the young poet Gonzalve (Daniel Curran) and then the old banker Don Iñigo (Alex Hajek). Hilarity ensues as Concepción tries to juggle the lovers and then Ramiro, who also catches her wandering eye. Torquemada returns completely oblivious to the craziness in his own shop (Gonzalve and Don Iñigo are by that point hiding in two of his grandfather clocks). As the madness comes to a close, the five players step out of character to tell the audience the moral of their story—and instead of scorning infidelity, the characters share a laugh and praise the man (Ramiro) who made the most of love when his opportunity appeared. 

Puccini wrote Gianni Schicchi as the third piece in a trio of one-acts, Il trittico, but it has gained fame as a standalone work. It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918, and has become a staple of the repertoire. Mindful of its potential for kitschiness, Wilson described the music as “lush, in-your-face, verismo,” but added that “it must be done tastefully—Puccini was never vulgar.” 

Giovacchino Forzano, who adapted the text from a few lines from Canto XXX of Dante’s Inferno, wrote the libretto, which Zvulun called “one of the greatest ever written. Puccini thought through every character, every word, and every bar of music completely. The piece is an absolute delight, not only musically but also in terms of character development, plot, and text. The libretto itself is simultaneously hilarious and profound.” 

The story focuses on the Donati family, whose patriarch, Buoso, has just died. His family’s crocodile tears barely hide their greed for his possessions, but all are shocked to find Buoso left his entire inheritance to a local monastery. One of the young relatives, Rinuccio (Ta’u Pupu’a), suggests that Gianni Schicchi (the father of the young woman he loves) will know what to do about this predicament. Schicchi (Alexander Hajek) and his daughter, Lauretta (Jung Nan Yoon) arrive, but he refuses to help these people who think he’s lower class. But then, in one of Puccini’s most famous arias, “O mio babbino caro,” Lauretta begs her father to help the family so that she may marry Rinuccio. Moved, Schicchi devises a plan in which he will impersonate the deceased Donati, call upon a notary (Andreas Aroditis) who doesn’t know Buoso is dead yet, and redistribute the old man’s possessions to his relatives. The scheming Schicchi then gets the best of the family when he bequeaths Buoso’s most prized possessions to his “devoted friend” Gianni Schicchi. Rinuccio and Lauretta share a passionate duet, which prompts Schicchi to ask the audience directly for a pardon, since Dante deemed it necessary to send such a scoundrel to Hell. In his plea, Schicchi says that Donati’s money could not have been used better than to help young people in love. 

Much of the action revolves around the hilarity of the situation, but there are moments of real poignancy. “There is something very human yet hysterical about the family that fights so brutally over the will of the patriarch,” Zvulun said. “There are moments of great tenderness and sweetness between father and daughter, and also between the young lovers who are standing against societal conventions.” Puccini’s orchestration and vocalism have a clarity and directness which perfectly frames the action of the story: frenetic when the family is run out of the house, yet incredibly lush with the lover’s passion. 

The operas’ humor is only enhanced by the creativity of the designers. Zvulun hoped to create characters who are eccentric and stereotypical, yet who would have enough humanity to evoke understanding from the audience. To unify the stories, he has set both in the 1970s, in part because the enormous influence Italian director Federico Fellini has had on his artistic vision. Zvulun’s take on Schicchi in particular was inspired by Fellini’s 1973 Oscar-winner Amarcord, which depicts the bawdiness of an oddball village. Donald Eastman has conceived a set that is striking, eclectic, and inventive. And the costumes, created by Vita Tzykun, hilariously accentuate each character’s traits, be it sleaziness for Don Iñigo, licentiousness for Concepción, or understatement for Schicchi. 

Both pieces contain important educational opportunities for young singers, Wilson said, adding that working with students “is very satisfying. They are like sponges—willing and open to all kinds of ideas and experiments.” Zvulun agreed. “There is something thrilling about working with the stars of tomorrow.”

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