Move over, Fellini. Woody is here again


Yes, believe it. Seven years ago Woody Allen came to LA Opera, drawn to the offer of directing Puccini's comedy, "Gianni Schicchi" --which is just the kind of Italian family squabble-fest Fellini might have gotten his hands on.

You know the story: an old patriarch dies and everyone is squeezing in the door conniving for an inheritance.

But back then we were still reveling in the company's 2002 incarnation of this endearing little household farce, courtesy of William Friedkin, and many of us saw no reason for a change-up production.

Here's a confession, though: the Woody treatment is eminently lovable. While it may not dance and tumble and bounce in lyric glee as Friedkin's did, we can see the "Amarcord" fist-waving and ranting, all of it animated with a core of internecine affection. By god, there's even a thin, little boy (Woody?) practicing gun-play.

And now that we've been indoctrinated by the silent film look with Barrie Kosky's ingenious "Magic Flute," another glimpse of this "Gianni Schicchi" (Johnny Skee-kee) is terrifically rewarding.

In fact, you can run downtown through Oct. 3 to see for yourself. And if you come away with a musical brainworm, blame Puccini -- because the composer threaded a delectable leitmotif throughout his one-act opera.

Hyper-seductive, it's a lilting six-note figure that scoops you up with a sweetness the world hardly knows anymore. It begins as the curtain opens and resounds in episode after episode, orchestrated as through-composed opera.

placido-domingo-Schicchi.jpgAs to that brainworm: It was Oliver Sacks' definition of "an exquisitely sensitive auditory system," one that operates on its own and comes up, unbidden, to transmit melodies to the turntable in the mind. And for those so-endowed (as he was) -- it cannot be denied here. Just try losing the tune fragment in your head after an encounter with this "Schicchi." And for that benefit we can thank conductor Grant Gershon, who emboldened it at every turn. He also drew a rollicking excitement from the orchestra and a sense of forward momentum from the cast.

Heading that cast, in the company's 30th anniversary season, was Plácido Domingo, always on hand to add celebrity glamour to these gala occasions. His Gianni Schicchi, outfitted in Santo Loquasto's Mafioso pinstripe zoot suit and white spats, had the look of a suave Don, exuding off-handed authority.

After all, this guy is expected to fix the problem: namely get the dead man's will changed so his family, and not the monastery, can lay claim to all assets. Domingo is a particularly good fit because the staging here is not buffa, (ital.) not antic, as in old Rossini operas, but contemporary, as in Italian movie comedies. Besides, the 74-year-old singing actor is no Zero Mostel -- dramatic roles have always been, through the decades, his forte.

But ah, he can still belt out those ringing high notes and insure a solid vocal presence, even if his newly inhabited baritone range lacks a consistently rounded tone.

Other cast notables include Arturo Chacón-Cruz, that handsome young tenor whose voice gets more tenderly appealing and ear-caressing in it freshness each time we hear him (any day now he, too, will be wooed away by the Met). As Rinuccio, he's one half of the romantic duo, longing to marry Lauretta, whose Big Tune, "O mio babbino caro" carries Andriana Chuchman to her predictably big applause. But no one outdoes Meredith Arwady, a superb Zita whose booming (nearly) baritone voice, defines the battle-axe Italian mother, clamoring for her inheritance, mainly the house, but is ambushed by Schicchi who "wills" it to himself and thus provides a dowry for his daughter so that she can marry Rinuccio, Zita's son -- and all can end happily!

Allen himself, who was not here to oversee this revival of his 2008 staging, commented back then "I have no idea what I am doing, but incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm." Modest words that belie the result.

Meanwhile Kathleen Smith Belcher followed through on most of the production notes, albeit with a slight softening. Yes, Allen's unique sight gags are there: the over-cooked spaghetti strands that the will-reader flings off of pages and yes, Allen's hilarious screen credits, in old-timey motif -- "Vittorio Fellatio," "Vitello Salmonella," etc. Everywhere are marks of his lively comic imagination and, of course, character nuances abound.

The opposite is true of the other one-act opera on the bill's second half, "Pagliacci." Here, in Zeffirelli's 1996 production that screams grand spectacle, we have a kind of jack-in-the-box opera staging that brings audiences to their feet on cue. They applaud the scenery, they spring up when the tenor cries in tragic heartbreak at the end. And it all seems so programmed.

Clearly Zeffirelli doesn't help, what with his outdated one-big-size-fits-all, strategy. (Remember he's the one who aggrandized that most intimate of operas, "Traviata.") And here, with Domingo now in the orchestra pit, presiding valiantly over stage and band, the curtain opens on a glittery, Technicolor, town square, where the vaudevillians -- acrobats, unicyclists, clowns of course -- roll out before what looks like 500 villagers with confetti raining down on the whole shebang. (It's really only 135 bodies cavorting at once.)

What he gives us is circus maximus. Occupants from dwelling units that rise three stories high look down on the motley crew milling about -- hookers in leather shorts and thigh-high boots, toughs with mohawks, roller-bladers and a menagerie of sideshow sensationalists, including a 6'2" skinny transy in a blonde wig and bare midriff strutting on platform heels.

Well, you can imagine that much else of what happens in Leoncavallo's little tear-jerker is incidental in Zeffirelli's hands. Let other directors draw us into the "La Strada"-like verismo opera, its titled sad clown enraged by his pretty wife's infidelity to the point of homicide. He will have none of it. And come to think of it while we're still seeing this old thing trotted out onstage the Met has dumped it in favor of a lean modern treatment. The pendulum swings.

But the cast carried out its assignments with passionate resolve. Marco Berti as Canio powered his famously tragic laugh-clown-laugh aria ("Vesti la giubba") with all the right heft, capped off by heavy sobs; Ana Maria Martinez, as Nedda, sang with a silvery loveliness that matched the lyric tones of Liam Bonner as a Silvio of her dreams and George Gagnidze delivered a villainous-sounding Tonio.

A reminder of a "Pagliacci" past: Angela Gheorghiu, who sang Nedda here a few years ago, just slipped into town for a recital at the Broad Stage. Still boasting a glorious voice, she got into it brilliantly after the first 20 minutes (prior to that the Romanian soprano seemed discomfited and had difficulty warming up and kept her eyes fastened on her music stand much of the time).

Finally she did deliver her ravishingly lush vocalism and even showed us why the recital format is unique: it affords songs meant to be intimately scaled down -- the way a powerful camera lens can reveal tiny beads of perspiration on an upper lip, for example. Gorgeous to hear, both as sound and meaning. Let recital artists live forever.

If only the singer had not stretched all shape and contour from show-off arias to a nearly unrecognizable state -- as she did in "Depuis le jour" -- which piano accompanist Jeff Cohen obediently abetted.

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