Princeton Festival’s 2012 opera performance is a don’t-miss event. A pairing of two one-act operas, it consists of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s tragedy “Francesca da Rimini” and Giacomo Puccini’s comedy “Gianni Schicchi.” The show is cohesive, fast-paced, visually arresting, superbly sung, and orchestrally vivid.
A unifying link is Dante’ Alighieri’s inclusion of characters from both stories in the “Inferno” his “Divine Comedy.” The poet’s role is hinted at as theater goers arrive. The arriving audience sees a writing desk stage right and an unattributed quotation from the “Divine Comedy.” The text, projected in white onto a black scrim establishes moral uncertainty. “Midway on our life’s journey/I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.”
The order of the operas in the Princeton Festival show is satisfying. “Francesca,” grim, passionate, and intense, comes first. “Schicchi,” with its caricatures of family members hoping to gain materially after the death of a family member, comes second. Reversing the order would have left the audience with a sinking feeling.
Dante (Samuel Green), and the Ghost of Virgil (Nathaniel Olson), his guide to Hell, remain onstage as onlookers until the end of the performance, though they have no role in “Gianni Schicchi,” the second opera. Their ability to stand motionless is noteworthy.
Francesca (Carolina Worra) is distant and emotionless in her attempt to be an obedient wife to her deformed husband Lanceotto (Stephen Gaertner), but becomes warm and responsive when she finally succumbs to Paolo (Rolando Sanz), her handsome brother-in-law. Gaertner’s heart-wrenching aria as he goes off to war is a show-stopper. Tortured by his wish for Francisca’s love, not merely her obedience, he reaches the hearts of the audience, whose acclaim interrupts the performance.
Gaertner’s tormented Lanceotto is cut from a cloth different from his energetic, clever Gianni Schicchi.
As Schicchi Gaertner single-mindedly sets about gathering the means to make his daughter Lauretta (Jodi Burns) an acceptable marriage partner for Rinuccio (Alex Richardson), nephew of the deceased Buoso. Schicchi, in Buoso’s nightgown, lies in Buoso’s bed and impersonates the dead man. In a tremulous voice he dictates a will in which he leaves Buoso’s most-desired possessions to “my good friend Gianni Schicchi.” The show-stopper aria in “Schicchi” is sung by Lauretta (Jodi Burns), who affirms her love for Rinuccio.
Each of the one-act operas has a single outstanding aria and are of comparable length; “Francesca” clocks in at 60 minutes; “Schicchi” takes 55 minutes.
On the whole, however, the two works are very different. Rachmaninoff’s “Francesca,” with its libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky, brother of the composer, is little known, while “Schicchi” is part of Puccini’s often-performed set of three one-act operas, “Il Trittico.” “Francesca,” with only six characters, is a chamber opera; “Schicchi” has a cast of 15. The Russian of “Francesca” makes for a heavy, ponderous text while the Italian of “Schicchi” is relatively light and explosive. Perhaps, most significantly, the libretto for “Francesca” is seven pages long, and “Schicchi’s” libretto comes to 65 pages.
With its brief text, “Francesca” provides long instrumental passages that give an imaginative director space for his own interpretations. Director Stephen LaCosse takes the challenge on with enthusiasm. As the long overture is played LaCosse’s “Francesca” includes projections of excerpts from Dante’s “Inferno.” “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” appears capitalized and in duplicate, and LaCosse incorporates dance sequences (choreographed by Graham Lustig) where those consigned to the Inferno writhe or twirl. He reserves a discrete descending melodic cello passage for Paolo to bestow a long, single kiss on Francesca.
Conductor Richard Tang Yuk wrests dramatic sonorities from the orchestra in “Francesca.” The musical textures have an almost visceral presence. The sound is stark and foreboding. Outsize staccato chords accompany Lanceotto’s rage in his big aria, and terminate in a chilling pianissimo. Under Tang Yuk’s baton, the instrumentalists deliver a roller coaster of sound.
Direction and musical leadership are as compelling in “Schicchi” as they are in “Francesca.” Each grasping family member is an individual with idiosyncrasies. Their percussive movement as they squabble lays bare the falseness of their ostentatious grieving. The orchestra keeps the pace brisk.
The skilled design team includes set designer Mark Pirolo, lighting designer Norman Coates, general costume designer Marie Miller; and costume design for dancers Sarah Romagnoli. An offstage chorus contributes to the proceedings.
The opposing nature of the two one-act operas in this year’s Princeton Festival turns out to be an asset. It highlights the magic of turning diversity into a unified whole.
“Francesca da Rimini” and “Gianni Schicchi,” Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Saturday, June 30, 3 p.m. www.princetonfetival.org or 609-258-2787.