In its double bill, "Gianni Schicchi" and "Buoso’s Ghost" New Jersey Opera Theater provides an exemplary recipe for opera-entertainment: Take a one-act opera by Giacomo Puccini, add a one-act opera inspired by Puccini’s piece, and mix the languages well.
The basic ingredients are Puccini’s "Gianni Schicchi," which premiered in 1918 and Michael Ching’s "Buoso’s Ghost," which premiered in 1996. Treated as a single opera by director Michael Scarola, the two one-acters fuse seamlessly despite the roughly 80 years between their writing. Sung in Italian, "Schicchi" concluded with an English address to the audience by its central character. "Ghost" was entirely in English. Supertitles were provided for both Italian and English texts.
The writing of "Buoso’s Ghost" was the by-product of a breakfast conversation during opera auditions in Chicago. "We were shooting the breeze about the idea of sequels," composer Michael Ching says. "I was the only composer in the crowd, so I took on the project." The opera premiered in Indianapolis with Scarola directing and James Caraher, who conducts the piece for NJOT, conducting. Composer Ching, who is artistic director of Opera Memphis, calls the NJOT performance "a kind of homecoming."
For the NJOT performance Ching added an aria sung by Gianni Schicchi (Steven Condy) in order to clarify that the Donati family has poisoned their aged relative, Buoso. He finished the added material over the Memorial Day weekend.
Set in Florence in 1299, "Gianni Schicchi" tells of the attempt by the aristocratic Donati family to undo Buoso’s wish to leave his fortune to a monastery. The family engages the wily peasant, Gianni Schicchi, to impersonate the dead Buoso and dictate a new will under which they will benefit. A subplot is the family’s desire to prevent Buoso’s nephew Rinuccio (Theodore Chletsos) from marrying Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta (Margaret Jensen) because of his lowly status. Schicchi rewrites the will so that the bulk of Buoso’s estate will go to him and will provide the dowry that makes possible the marriage of his daughter Lauretta to Buoso’s nephew Rinuccio.
"Buoso’s Ghost" begins exactly as "Gianni Schicchi" ends. When the bird dies after Schicchi feeds him a piece of bread, he realizes that the Donati family has poisoned Buoso. The family accuses Schicchi of murdering Buoso and calls in a magistrate (Steven Lavonier). With a fake suicide note that he has planted on Buoso’s body, Schicchi demonstrates that Buoso has taken his own life. Impersonating the ghost of Buoso, Schicchi frightens the relatives away.
Uniform vocal excellence distinguished the performance. All of the singers were on target. Rinuccio (Theodore Chletsos) and Zita (Olga Perez) played roles that anchored the presentation both vocally and dramatically because of their solid presence from beginning to end. Schicchi (Steven Condy) and Lauretta (Margaret Jensen) took command once they entered the Donati family’s premises. Condy was a formidable player who sang authoritatively without being overly dominant, while Jensen melted hearts with her "O mio babbino caro" ("Oh, my beloved Daddy"), the well-known aria from "Gianni Schicchi."
Director Scarola, an opera singer himself, understood well how far to push choreography for visual and dramatic effect, without making impossible demands on vocalists. His regrouping of multi-person scenes into mobile heaps, crowds, and straight lines gave the audience a variety of configurations to look at. The mini-fight scenes and gymnastics contributed vitality. Somersaults and cartwheels enlivened "Buoso’s Ghost." It was somewhat surprising to see Buoso’s pregnant niece (Julie Kinzey) do a somersault, but why not?
The design consortium (Ron Kadri, sets; Barry Steele, lighting; Sue Sittko Schaefer, make-up and wigs; and the costume team of Patricia Hibbert, Marie Miller and Angela Huff) helped enhance the teeming action. Yet, I found the perceptible changes of color in the lighting somewhat distracting, as was an unexplained blinking of lights above the stage.
The NJOT evening was lively and unflagging, all the way to the curtain calls. The living man, unidentified in the program, who played the dead Buoso, took a bow. And Buoso’s pregnant niece appeared with a new baby for her curtain call.
To my mind, it is particularly refreshing to see the continuity of opera from past to present in the double bill that NJOT presented. Admirably, the enterprising Michael Ching has built on the most flexible of Puccini’s three one-act operas in "Il Trittico" and produced a satisfying sequel. It would have been more difficult to update "Suor Angelica" – she is dead – or "Il Tabarro" with its grimly decisive ending.
Moreover, it is gratifying to know that contemporary operas can be performed more than once. "Buoso’s Ghost," by composer Ching’s estimate, makes its eighth appearance with its inclusion in NJOT’s summer season.
Gianni Schicchi & Buoso’s Ghost, New Jersey Opera Theater, Berlind Theater at McCarter, Princeton, 609-258-2787. Double bill. $42 and $49. Friday, July 21, 8 p.m. Also Sunday, July 23, 2 p.m.