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The Canadian Opera Company unveiled a strong pairing of one-act operas that played off similarities and contrasts in satisfying ways at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Thursday night.
The new COC production effectively pairs Giacomo Puccini’s well-worn ensemble comedy, Gianni Schicchi with the little known chamber drama A Florentine Tragedy, by Alexander Zemlinsky.
One is broad and fluffy, built on the timeless melody-spinning skills of an Italian master. The other, in German, is tightly wound, set in a slippery tonal palette that interweaves idyll and tragedy in rich and intriguing ways.
Interestingly enough, A Florentine Tragedy, the more musically adventurous of the two one-act operas, had its premiere nearly two years before Gianni Schicchi saw its first raised curtain at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918.
The COC enlisted American operatic soprano-turned-director Catherine Malfitano to direct both works. With the able help of Wilson Chin’s sets, Therese Wadden’s costumes and David Martin Jacques straightforward lighting, this production sets Florentine Tragedy in the 1920s, followed by Gianni Schicchi in the same grandly faded Florentine villa, more or less in the present day.
Malfitano’s direction is unfussy, focusing on the psychological parrying between adulterers and the cuckolded husband in the drama, and on the messy machinations of a family fighting over a dead man’s estate in the comedy.
All-around vocal and dramatic competence is another asset. Particularly notable is bass-baritone Alan Held, making a strong COC début as the husband and as Schicchi.
In Schicchi, fellow American, tenor René Barbera is a treat as romantic lead Rinuccio, and COC Ensemble Studio alumna, soprano Simone Osborne, rendered Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro,” the opera’s one famous aria, with a nice blend of strength and simplicity.
Former Toronto Symphony Orchestra and current Chicago Lyric Opera music director, Sir Andrew Davis, weaves magical textures from the two very different scores — perhaps a bit too much so on Thursday night, frequently overpowering the singers with the COC Orchestra’s rich harmonies.
Getting to see a live production of A Florentine Tragedy, which is based on an Oscar Wilde story, is a treat. Although the woman is little more than a pawn in the dialogue, the opera sets up its three characters as wary animals circling each other in a psychological cage, supported every step along the way by shifts and ambiguities in the music.
Malfitano’s only misstep is to make Bianca, the wife of ruthless merchant Simone and lover of amorous Florentine Prince Guido, into a flapper — a symbol of the newly emancipated woman. But she is anything but emancipated, as she gets ordered around by her jealous husband, and held in the thrall of the Prince’s attentions and her own passions.
As the opera opens, Bianca swans about in full flapper flight, striking Erté-like poses, generally behaving as an escapee from an Edward Gorey tale, thereby undermining the dramatic tug-of-war that is about to ensue.
But this gripe is easily forgotten as Zemlinsky’s seductive score begins to weave its magical spell on the listener. It is the meat and potatoes in a multi-course feast of tears and laughter, making for opera at its most engaging and engrossing.
Performances of the double bill continue to May 25. For further details, click here.