Giacomo Puccini - Gianni Schicchi
LA Opera, 2015
Grant Gershon, Woody Allen, Kathleen Smith Belcher, Plácido Domingo, Adriana Chuchman, Meredith Arwady, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Greg Fedderly, Stacey Tappan, Craig Colclough, Philip Cokorinos, Liam Bo
Sony - Blu-ray
Given their location on the doorstep of Hollywood, it's not surprising that the cinema might have some influence over LA Opera productions, but filmmakers have long played a part in opera directing in Europe as well. Opera shares an affinity with opera in how music can be a vital element that gives depth and commentary on the drama and sometimes takes it to a new dimension, so it's not surprising that some of the best filmmakers in the world (Tarkovsky, Bergman, Losey, Kiarostami, Herzog, Haneke) have all dipped their toes into the opera world.
Music evidently plays a large part in the films of Woody Allen, even though his films are more associated with ragtime jazz and classics from the 1930s and 1940s. Although he has made a musical ('Everyone Says I Love You'), it's the use of George Geshwin music for Manhattan that has seen his most successful melding of music and drama. Allen has even done a bit of on-screen opera directing, albeit in spoof mode in 'To Rome With Love' (2012), where he played a 'Regietheater' director who devises an elaborate production to accommodate a great tenor (played by Fabio Armiliato) who can only sing well when he is in the shower.
It's comedy that is obviously Woody Allen's forte, so if you're going to engage the filmmaker to direct a work at the LA Opera it seems only natural to let him loose on a comic masterpiece like Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. In practice - like much of his cinema work - Allen's involvement doesn't appear to extend into character direction of the performers. Judging by the behind the scenes footage, it's left to revival director Kathleen Smith Belcher to coach the cast in this 2015 recording of Allen's 2008 production, but even then it would appear much is left to the actual performers to find their own interpretation of the work.
Whether he brings much out of the characterisation or not, Allen's touch is evident in other ways. Much of his contribution to the look and feel of the LA Opera's Gianni Schicchi is the setting of the opera in the neo-realist Italy of Vittorio de Sica's 'Bicycle Thieves'. Allen is assisted in the creation of this post-war world of poverty and desperation by the involvement of his regular film production designer Santo Loquasto. The production design certainly has a 1940s black and white Italian neo-realist movie character - Allen even providing joke opening credit titles - but otherwise it doesn't look much different to any other production of Gianni Schicchi. You could probably even set La Bohème there.
Perhaps Allen's most significant touch is to have Gianni Schicchi played as a Neapolitan mafia character in a pin-stripe suit. It doesn't fit entirely with the Florentine character of the work, but perhaps the Camorra is extending its operations out to exploit vulnerable and gullible Italians further north. Schicchi's daughter, the usually sweet Lauretta who is becoming one of the family through her engagement to Rinuccio, even wields a mean knife here when family tensions are roused in the dispute over the recently deceased Buoso Donati's fortune.
All this works fairly well without making too many demands on the essential comic elements of the plot of Gianni Schicchi, but it doesn't really contribute much that is new to the work either. Or even much that is really funny other than the humour that is inherently already there in the situation. There are a lot more laughs that can be had with hiding a dead body and with the threats of Florentine hand-chopping justice that holds the family back from thwarting Schicchi's scheme to defraud them. Allen's idea of justice for Schicchi also isn't content with leaving him to the fate described in Canto XXX of Dante's Inferno, but has Zita stab him just before he pleads his case to the audience.
Caveats, as ever, must be made for Plácido Domingo in a baritone role, even more so as he is getting older. He doesn't quite have the depth of voice required here, but he has character and personality and clearly relishes the opportunity to play Schicchi, particularly in a mafia persona. The other significant roles are all well sung, but there's not much sparkle in Grant Gershon's conducting of Puccini's wonderfully playful, lyrical and inventive score.