A cluster of wide-ranging performances over a period of three weeks makes up the 2012 Princeton Festival. The broad spectrum of events includes a gamelan orchestra, choral concerts, chamber music, a piano competition, and musical theater. The centerpiece of the festival is the performance of two one-act operas, Giacomo Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Francesca da Rimini” in McCarter’s Matthews Theater Saturday, June 23, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, June 30, at 3 p.m.
Festival events began on Saturday, June 9, when performances by the Lustig Dance Theater and the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra opened the festival. A jazz concert took place on Sunday, June 10. Background presentations at area libraries continue as the festival runs its course.
The most-performed component of the festival is the musical “Once Upon a Mattress,” which is based on the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” Nine performances of the piece take place starting Friday, June 15 at 8 p.m., in the intimate, 100-seat theater at 185 Nassau Street.
The two one-act operas selected for performance at McCarter embody the extremes of operatic fare. Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” is unadulterated comedy. Rachmaninoff’s “Francesca da Rimini” is tragedy from start to finish. Dante Alighieri, writing in the 14th century, furnishes a link between the two operas by including characters from both stories in his “Divine Comedy.”
Stephen La Cosse of the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem returns to direct the opera component of the Princeton Festival for a fourth season. As an opera director La Cosse has embraced lesser-known operas. The Rachmaninoff “Francesca” falls into that category, while Puccini’s “Schicchi” is much-performed. Richard Tang Yuk, Princeton Festival`s artistic director, conducts the pair of operas. Baritone Stephen Gaertner plays the central role in each of the operas.
In a telephone interview from his home in New York City, Gaertner expands on his experience mastering his roles in the two operas. “At the outset,” he says, “the big contrast is that one is tragic and one is comic. The connection is that both come from Dante’s ‘Inferno.’”
In “Schicchi” Gaertner plays the rascal after whom the opera is named. In “Francesca” he plays Lanceotto, the doomed lover.
As the lighthearted work “Schicchi” opens Buoso lies dead in his bed surrounded by relatives who have gathered to hear his will. They are dismayed to learn that Buoso has left his fortune to a monastery. Rinuccio, one of Buoso’s relatives, is in love with Gianni Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta; unfortunately, Schicchi cannot provide the dowry needed for the match. Still, Buoso’s relatives trust Schicchi to improve Buoso’s allotment of his fortune.
Schicchi settles into Buoso’s bed, and, in Buoso’s voice, calls for the doctor to inform him that his health has taken a turn for the better. Impersonating Buoso, he calls for a notary and dictates a new will in which Buoso’s fortune is left to Schicchi. Having inherited Buoso’s wealth, Schicchi is able to provide the dowry that enables Rinuccio and Lauretta to marry. Dante consigns Schicchi to Hell for his trickery, but Schicchi asks the audience not to condemn him because of extenuating circumstances.
In Rachmaninoff’s “Francesca” the ghost of Virgil leads Dante to the second circle of Hell, where lustful sinners are punished. Dante asks two such sinners, Francesca and Paolo, to tell their story. Francesca has been tricked into marrying Lanceotto, a deformed warrior, rather than marrying Paolo, his handsome younger brother. While Lanceotto is at war, Paolo and Francesca have an adulterous relationship. Lanceotto returns from war and sees the lovers together. He fatally stabs them.
Gaertner shares the challenges of each roles. “I’ve rarely done comedy,” he says. “The best way to approach a comic situation, I decided, was to take it seriously. In ‘Schicchi’ the situation is funny. If you take it as it comes, it will play itself and you won’t do anything to mess up the comical situation.”
Though he had played one of Schicchi’s relatives before, Gaertner assumes the title role for the first time at the Princeton Festival. “One of the challenges,” he says, “is imitating Buoso in a voice that’s not my own.”
The musical scoring of “Schicchi” provides another challenge, Gaertner says. “Puccini likes to use stressed off beats in the orchestral accompaniment in order to create a sighing feeling. Don’t forget that the atmosphere is sad because Buoso has died. But the vocal parts come in on strong beats. The syncopations make the piece difficult.
“The bottom line is that the Gianni Schicchi role was easy to learn because I had performed in the opera before,” Gaertner says. “And, since ‘Gianni Schicchi’ is a popular opera, I had heard it many times.
“Part of the challenge of Rachmaninoff’s ‘Francesca’ is that it is not well-known,” Gaertner says. “Another ‘Francesca,’ the one by Zandonai, is somewhat better known than the Rachmaninoff.”
The Metropolitan Opera performs Riccardo Zandonai’s full-length “Francisca” next season. Gaertner sings in the Met production. “Rachmaninoff develops the character of Lanceotto more fully than Zandonai does,” Gaertner says. “In the Rachmaninoff version you see his strength, his ugly side, and his introspection. Lanceotto is in love with Francesca and wants her to love him in return. The Rachmaninoff Lanceotto is much richer than the Zandonai Lanceotto, where Lanceotto is simply an unpleasant warrior. Zandonai focuses more on Francesca’s character than on Lanceotto’s.”
In the Rachmaninoff “Francesca” Gaertner performs a Russian role for the first time in public. “I speak enough Italian to get around in Italy,” Gaertner says. “But the Russian is new. I had to work on the language and diction in order to learn not to stress the consonants too much. It was something like singing in Czech. There are a lot of consonant clusters, but you have to stress the vowels. I’ve done Czech opera before, so there were not too many problems with the Russian.”
Switching roles and languages is no problem for Gaertner. “I try to learn something so thoroughly that it becomes an independent entity,” he says. “Then there’s no problem to go back to it. You don’t have trouble telling the difference between putting on your shoes and putting on your shirt.”
Now in his early 40s, Gaertner was born in Atlanta and grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, where his family still lives. His father was an engineer; his mother, primarily a housewife, had various occupations, including running a horse farm. His family dabbled in music and appreciated it, he says. His mother was an opera fan.
Gaertner started piano at six and added violin three years later. “Opera came into my life about the time I started violin,” he says. “I felt the voice starting to kick in when I was finishing high school.”
Gaertner moved to New York in 1990 to study at the Manhattan School of Music. After earning a degree in 1993 he participated in apprentice programs at Florida’s Sarasota Opera, Colorado’s Central City Opera, and New York’s Glimmerglass Opera.
He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2007 and has appeared in the Met’s “Live in HD” performances, which transmit actual opera productions to hundreds of theaters throughout the world. “There’s a little bit of anxiety about those performances,” he says, “because you know they will be seen by millions of people. I learned right away that you should treat it like just another performance.” That’s not necessarily easy to do. “There’s a camera on the floor that moves, which is disconcerting,” Gaertner says. “I thought, ‘Don’t look at it. Act as if it’s not there.’”
Gaertner has managed to overcome the stress of appearing with opera personalities whose names are household words, but he vividly recalls his first appearance with Placido Domingo in a “Live in HD” performance of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.” “I had a much bigger role than I had played before,” Gaertner says, “and I was alone onstage when Placido Domingo came on. It was like an out of body experience. You never stop to think while training ‘I could be on stage at Carnegie Hall’ or ‘I could be performing with major performers.’ I was the new guy on the block.”
This fall Gaertner appears at the Met in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” with Renee Fleming. “Now, it’s not so unusual to appear with big names,” he says. “I don’t want to take it for granted. But I think ‘This is who I am. It’s not some strange thing.’ It’s a dream that has come true.”
Gaertner continues to study privately with New York-based voice teacher Michael Paul. At the lessons, he says, “We vocalize and we keep the technique in line. The voice changes as we age. Sometimes you have to rethink basic technical aspects. There are little things that add up like keeping the voice forward and remembering about supporting both mind and body. You can fall into bad habits. Technical and interpretive mannerisms must be eliminated. You have to come back to square one and go from there.”
“Gianni Schicchi” and “Francesca da Rimini,” Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Saturday, June 23, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, June 30, at 3 p.m. $30 to $90. Visit www.princetonfestival.org for more information. To purchase tickets: www.mccarter.org or 609-258-2787.