Review: A Florentine Tragedy/Gianni Schicchi

COC’s productions of A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi offer both contrast and appeal

For its sixth production of the season, the Canadian Opera Company decided to do a double feature of one-act operas – A Florentine Tragedy by Alexander von Zemlinsky and Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini. The operas present a fairly stark contrast in terms of style and content. A Florentine Tragedy is darkly comedic, with the emphasis on dark, and tells a story of dysfunctional marriage, adultery and murder. Gianni Schicchi is a hilarious romp about a large, greedy family who gets out-foxed by the cunning Schicchi. It was difficult to understand why these two disparate works were juxtaposed but on the whole it made for a very entertaining evening of singing.

A Florentine Tragedy was set in the 1920s and featured a minimal and stylish set with the action taking place inside the home of Simone, a wealthy, mean-tempered merchant. He returns home from a business trip to discover his wife, Bianca entertaining a “guest,” the prince of Florence. An interesting conversation unfolds between the trio. Bianca has very little personality and her role is largely ancillary to the drama taking place between the two men. My companion and I both felt this was unfortunate because Gun-Brit Barkmin has a lovely, warm, rich and slightly dark voice that we did not get to hear enough of in this role.

Zemlinsky is a composer of the early 20th century and while the music is essentially tonal, it is certainly not symmetrical. The opera is through sung and melodic motifs develop and resolve in unexpected ways. The compositional style was not exactly my cup of tea, but it would no doubt appeal to modern music fans. My companion found the music was not sumptuous in the way that he expects of opera. He also noted that most of the action was confined to about half the stage and found it unfortunate that the space was not used more effectively. On the whole, we both felt we neither loved nor hated it.

Gianni Schicchi on the other hand was delightfully good fun. This well-known crowd pleaser is from a trilogy of one act operas which includes “Suor Angelica” and “Il tabarro.” Puccini is best known for his epic tragedies (La Boheme, Tosca) but in Gianni Schicchi he demonstrates his talent for comedy. Whereas his sweeping, evocative melodies and rich, textured harmonies are used to heighten dramatic tension and elicit intense emotion from the listener in his well-known melodramas, in this work, similar compositional ideas are used to take melodrama to comedic extremes.

The staging also made exceptionally effective use of gesture, prop comedy and slapstick to enhance the hilarity of the libretto and score. This production was set in modern times, which was entirely appropriate given the timeless nature of the story. The backdrop of Florence was spectacular.

The familiar aria “O Mio Bambino Caro” was beautifully performed by Simone Osborne. The humour of this stunning song is not evident when it is heard as an excerpt but was certainly quite funny in context. The cast did a wonderful job of bringing this opera to life and demonstrated impressive dramatic ability in addition to truly fine singing. The role of Schicchi involves significant comedic singing, in addition to lyrical operatic singing. Alan Held excelled in this area and presented an inspired interpretation of the role.

Despite the fairly lukewarm response my companion and I had to A Florentine Tragedy we enjoyed the evening because of Gianni Schicchi. A Florentine Tragedy seemed to receive a much warmer reception from other audience members so no doubt the night was a great success for most in attendance.

– A Florentine Tragedy/Gianni Schicchi is playing at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen St. W.) until May 25, 2012.

– Performance dates and times are:

  • Wed. May 2, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sat. May 5, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sat. May 12, 2012 at 4:30 p.m.
  • Tues. May 15, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Fri. May 18, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sun. May 20, 2012 at 2 p.m.
  • Fri. May 25, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.

– Ticket prices range from $45 – $318. Patrons under 30 years of age can purchase tickets for $22. Standing room and rush tickets go on sale at 11:00 am on the day of the performance. Standing room tickets are $12.00, rush tickets are $22.00
– Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231

photo of Alan Held and cast of Gianni Schicchi by Michael Cooper