It was my last night in Toronto! My sisters birthday would be smack dab in the middle of my press trip to Europe so wanted to make sure we did something special to celebrate before I left. I invited her to join me for the premiere of the Canadian Opera Company’s double bill of “A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi.” I have recently become an Opera fan and to date have reviewed the COC’s Tosca, Love From Afar and The Tales of Hoffmann. I have also checked out the baroque offerings of Opera Atelier’s Armide. Needless to say I was looking forward to my first double bill!
This is one of the rare times that A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi have been paired together. The two works were written just a year apart, with Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy premiering in Stuttgart in 1917 and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918, and both use Florence as the backdrop for their respective stories of familial turmoil.
The COC’s new production uses Florence’s breathtaking cityscape as the canvas on which Malfitano draws out the themes of class values, morality and excess of riches that underline both operas. Inspired by how A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi are linked in time and subject but can feel representative of two very different worlds, Malfitano’s concept unites the two operas by having them take place within the same Italian palazzo but physically sets them in different time periods.
We arrived just before the show started so quickly grabbed our tickets and found our way to our seats. I typically sit on the main floor but this time around was given tickets for Ring 3. We took the elevator up one floor and once at our seats I couldn’t help but smile. The view of the stage was so different from when sitting on the main stage looking directly at the performers. I was excited to see how my perception of the show may change based on my point of view. I could now look directly down at the stage which appeared to hover over the orchestra (which was never visible to me before). Sitting in the centre I could see both the left and right wings of the theater. A much better perspective which allowed me to appreciate the sheer size of the Four Seasons Opera House.
While my sister was reading through the Playbill I hopped out of my seat to take a few pictures. The woman beside her apparently commented to my sister, “Is he in a religion where he must where a hat? He should take it off,” followed by a stern glare. Once I sat back down she whispered the whole story to me and I was just absolutely ecstatic that I had been offered a fashion snub. I looked over at my critic who wore a disheveled hair cut with roots that had not been attended for some time. I really wish she had insulted me to my face so I could have had the opportunity to say something smart back like, “would you like to use my hat during the duration of the performance to cover that?” (pointing to the tuft which spiraled above her crown!) In all seriousness, who bothers to take the time to criticize someone’s sense of fashion or hat wear? On top of that, who uses religion as a vehicle to make a joke of the whole thing? Apparently, middle aged women who shop exclusively at Talbots! I was interrupted from scowling at the woman when an announcement was made that the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario was present. Everyone stood up for God Save the Queen and stared across the crowd to see where they would be sitting. I found it rather hilarious as every seasoned senior looked around diligently. The song ended and everyone sat down with underwhelmed looks on their faces.
The Canadian premiere of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy is a chance to discover a rare gem of the operatic repertoire. Based on an unfinished Oscar Wilde play, the darkly satiric work tells the tale of a merchant who discovers his wife is having an affair and contains one of opera’s most unexpected endings with the murder of the wife’s lover and the married couple’s passionate reconciliation.
The first part of the bill that evening took place in the 1920′s. The set was rich in flapper designs: spiral staircase to the left, overhead chandelier illuminating an ornate family room with cow hide as rug. I couldn’t take the storyline too seriously (it is a satire anyway) as the merchant husband says some of the most ghastly chauvinistic one liners to his wife (who is cheating on him with the Prince I might add). I scribbled some of my favorites on a pad: “She’s made to keep house and to spin…Let death enter where adultery is committed…Indulge in forbidden lust defiling pillows.” She really is treated as a servant and ornament in his life of excess. The husband becomes suspicious and quickly the men take to rambling about “who has better tempered steel sword,” and get caught up in a sword fight up until the point that hand to hand combat is necessary and the Merchant strangles the Prince on stage. The ending made me roll my eyes. The wife’s secret lover has just been murdered by her husband and her first comment is, “Why didn’t you tell me you were so strong?” with his response, ” Why didn’t you tell me you were so beautiful?” He walks over to her and they embrace lovingly in an ornate robe. I burst out laughing at the end as the situation was so ridiculous. I think Oscar Wilde would have been proud.
In Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, American bass-baritone Alan Held sings the title role. As the street-smart peasant Gianni Schicchi, Held is at the heart of this fast-paced comedy inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which a family frantically schemes to benefit their own greed when excluded from a wealthy relative’s will.
The second bill takes place in present day Florence. Pardon my corny connection but Gianni Schicchi is a hilarious piece of comedy that reminded both my sister and I of a operatic version of Everybody Loves Raymond. With a wild and colourful cast of family members including a hilarious stubborn mother. The cast is endearing and relatable, you can’t help but laugh at their predicament as their wealthy family member is taking his last breaths and they discover he has left everything in his will to a monastery. They rant and rave, “I’ll have to drink by the glass while monks guzzle by the barrel.” The obnoxious family fights over the will while the mans frail corpse sinks into a pull out couch in the centre of the stage. A perfect comedy about love and family greed. Also a great reminder to contact your lawyer and update your Last Will and Testament…