When I arrived at my seat in the Lucas Theatre for the Arts for the Sunday matinee performance of two-thirds of Giacomo Puccini’s Il Trittico — Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi — I found a diminutive elderly man occupying the space indicated on my ticket. We quickly resolved the matter, and I will forever be grateful for the minor snafu. The man, probably well into his seventies, turned out to be a lifelong opera fanatic from New York who had traveled to Savannah to see a friend, Matthew Morris, sing Betto in Gianni Schicchi. He attends performances at the Metropolitan Opera at least twice a week, sometimes going to a matinee, taking a late lunch, then returning for a repeat performance the same evening. His favorite operas are Beethoven’s Fidelio and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. When I explained that opera fans in Georgia are grateful for an accomplished opera company in the Atlanta Opera, and we look forward to attending three or four shows a year, he looked at me like I was nuts. “I could not live here,” he said. In any case, we agreed that the decision to bring opera under the SMF’s already diverse programming umbrella was a welcome one.
The staging of Puccini’s approximately one-hour, one-act operas was co-produced by the SMF and the Savannah Voice Festival (SVF). The SVF was founded in 2013 by Sherrill Milnes, one of America’s most recorded opera singers and a three-time GRAMMY-winning baritone, and his wife, soprano Maria Zouves. Friday’s and Saturday’s performances were billed as the highlight of Milnes’ 80th birthday year celebration.
Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, which received their world premieres (along with Il tabarro) at the Met on December 14, 1918, are masterpieces in miniature of the operatic form (the former a tragedy, the latter a comedy) thanks to their frankly economical and urgently emotional librettos by Giovacchino Forzano and, of course, Puccini’s genius. For the SMF/SVF production, Eugene Kohn was at the helm of the Savannah Philharmonic and Joachim Schamberger directed both operas. Soprano Veronica Villaroel and baritone Mark Delavan sang the title roles.
The quality of the singing in both operas was generally excellent, and especially superb in the title roles. Villaroel’s portrayal of Sister Angelica was on point in every aspect: sweetly mischievous, emotionally conflicted, deeply spiritual, devoutly supplicant before God and desperately beholden to Mary, the Virgin mother. Her climactic arioso, “Senza mamma,” lifted an already compelling drama into the realm of the magically enthralling. At curtain’s close, the audience rose in unison to deliver an unqualified ovation.
I turned to gauge the reaction of my new friend from New York. “Far beyond my expectations,” he said, with a beaming smile and a finger wiping something from under his glasses.
While as different in tone and mood as it could possibly be, Gianni Schichhi benefited from the same exceptional standard of performance, production, and execution as did Suor Angelica. Mark Delavan brought everything required to the namesake character’s role including a richly articulated, robustly commanding voice. His Schicchi offered the perfect combination of gruff but loving father, charming con man, and cynically humorous philosopher.
Gianni Schicchi is essentially a sitcom involving a dysfunctional family’s quest to alter the will of their deceased patriarch, thereby funneling his considerable inheritance away from a local monastery and into their coffers. When the family enlists the special talents of Schicchi, the local “fixer” whose son is engaged to the family’s youngest daughter, hilarious intrigues ensue. Space precludes my delving into the numerous lyrical jokes, visual puns, and satirical commentary that punctuate Puccini’s work, but trust me: Gianni Schicchi is a laugh-out-loud opera, which even the youngest members of the Lucas Theater audience appreciated.
Both productions made extensive and imaginative use of modern projection technology to create expressive and appropriate settings for the onstage action. For Suor Angelica, which tells the tale of a nun banished by her aristocratic family to a convent because she got pregnant out of wedlock, a series of “painted” screens, which descended on cue to cover the proscenium, conjured up the interior of the cloister, an outdoor funeral during winter, the majestic aerie of Heaven and the frightful conflagration of Hell.
The SMF and SVF organizers should be well pleased with their accomplishment. Based on Saturday’s audience response, I’m wagering opera has found a lasting slot in the SMF calendar. (Sunday, March 22 – DD)
Each day of the 17-day Savannah Music Festival, music journalist Doug DeLoach shares reviews, recommendations and musings on his adventures in Savannah. Read all of his daily dispatches here.
On Monday, March 23, Savannah Music Festival’s cabaret production, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” makes its final presentation this year at 12:30 p.m. at the Charles H. Morris Center. At 6 p.m. violinist Daniel Hope and friends present “Brahms & His Influences” at Trinity United Methodist Church. Then its back to the Morris at 7:30 for The Barr Brothers, a Montreal-based improvisational rock trio and The Apache Relay, a Nashville group that toured in support of Mumford & Sons.
About the Savannah Music Festival
The historic district of downtown Savannah plays host to more than 100 performances during the annual Savannah Music Festival (SMF), which celebrates exceptional artistry in jazz, classical and a variety of American and international musical traditions. Now through April 4, more than 100 programs will be staged in SMF’s most international festival to date. A full schedule and tickets are available at savannahmusicfestival.org. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at 912-525-5050 or at 216 E. Broughton Street in Savannah. For information on lodging, attractions, places to eat and tours, check out VisitSavannah.org.