Chicago Opera Review: LA VOIX HUMAINE & GIANNI SCHICCHI (Chicago Opera Theater at the Harris)

by Barnaby Hughes on February 7, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

Post image for Chicago Opera Review: LA VOIX HUMAINE & GIANNI SCHICCHI (Chicago Opera Theater at the Harris)

A DAMNED GOOD PAIRING

What could be a more appropriate title for an opera than La Voix Humaine? What better source material for an opera than Dante’s Divina Commedia? Chicago Opera Theatre combines the two in the unusual pairing of Poulenc’s operatic monologue and Puccini’s one-act Gianni Schicchi. It is a surprisingly successful and enjoyable pairing that illuminates the similarities and differences of each. For one, both share a preoccupation with love and death (don’t all operas?), but one is a tragedy and the other a comedy. Harmonically, each features a fairly good balance of dissonance and resolution without much melody. Recitative predominates.

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Composed in 1958 and debuted the following year, La Voix Humaine is adapted from a play by Jean Cocteau. Its plot and setting are quite simple: a woman talks on the phone to her lover the day following her attempted suicide. The singing and acting are both written and performed in an entirely realistic fashion. The woman’s vocal lines are patterned on spoken speech, with the cadences and inflections that go with that, but is nothing like German sprechstimme. When her words get more dramatic, so does Poulenc’s score. Conductor Ari Pelto deftly restrains the orchestra, which never overpowers Patricia Racette’s exquisite soprano. Not only does she manage to express a wide range of emotions, but she does so with consummate ease, flawless technique and perfect diction.

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In Canto XXX of Dante’s Inferno, Gianni Schicchi is condemned to the eighth circle of hell as an evil impersonator. Puccini’s short opera relates what Schicchi did to end up there. When Buoso Donati dies, his family is horrified to discover that Buoso has left his entire fortunate to a bunch of beggars, i.e. friars. The family enlists the help of Schicchi, who decides to impersonate the dead Buoso and dictate a new will. Everyone wins, especially Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta. Once Schicchi has swindled the Donatis out of a portion of their inheritance, she gains the dowry she needs to marry Rinuccio, one of Buoso’s relations.

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Director Andreas Mitisek provides some visual continuity between La Voix Humaine and Gianni Schicchi by using much of the same stage design and props in both. In the latter, however, he heightens the comedy with outlandish costumes, showcasing the most garish of 1960s couture, including brightly colored psychedelic prints, ruffled dress shirts, and oversize, gold-framed eyeglasses. Video designer Sean T. Cawelti adds further layers of color and movement with his dizzyingly kaleidoscopic projections.

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While Mitisek keeps Poulenc’s opera in its original French, he opts for an English translation of Puccini’s Italian (libretto by Giovacchino Forzano). Nothing seems to be lost by way of melody, even in Emily Birsan’s stunning rendition of “O mio babbino caro,” easily the most delightful beautiful moment of the entire production. But why do we need English supertitles when the lyrics are in English? Michael Chioldi plays the slippery titular character with flamboyant joie de vivre.

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Unlike much of Poulenc’s and Puccini’s other compositions, La Voix Humaine and Gianni Schicchi do not work so well as audio recordings divorced from the stage. Thus, to experience them as presented by Chicago Opera Theatre is to enjoy them at their most compelling.

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photos by Michael Brosilow

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Schicchi 9La Voix Humaine
Gianni Schicchi

Chicago Opera Theater
Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph
ends on February 14, 2016
for tickets, call 312.704.8414 or visit COT

for more Chicago Theater info,
visit Theatre in Chicago

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