Denton — This is surely opera week in Metroplex with three opera productions in the offing. The UNT Opera at the University of North Texas got things off to a rollicking start on Wednesday evening with a double bill of one-act comedies. Puccini’s well-known Gianni Schicchi was first up followed by a rarity, Roussel’s Le Testament de la tante Caroline (Aunt Caroline’s Will).
The clever pairing at UNT is a coup de théâtre by the always-surprising Director of Opera Studies, Jonathan Eaton.
The perennial problem with programming Puccini’s popular piece is what to pair with it. The hugely humorous plot concerns the will of the wealthy, recently deceased, Buoso Donati, and his predatory, potential beneficiaries.
It only lasts an hour and is part of a trilogy of one-acts he called Il Trittico, which also contains the tragedy Il Tabaro and the mystical, miracle-laden Suor Angelica. The three are rarely performed together because it makes for a long evening (over four hours). This means that you have to find something to go with whichever opera you produce. No easy task.
The ever-resourceful Eaton dug up a perfect pairing in the rarely produced Le testament de la tante Caroline. It is an opéra bouffe, dated from 1936, by the composer Albert Roussel with a libretto by the mysteriously named Nino (a pseudonym of Michel Veber). Originally in three acts and in Czech, it was revised in 1964 when it was translated into English, French and German. What makes it such a good match with Schicchi is that it also involves a dead wealthy person with a raft of rapacious relatives.
Another benefit of the programming is that both operas have a surprise ending that is the cherry on top of these delightful confections.
Eaton has proven himself a master of tragedy with last season’s disturbingly dark version of Gounod’s Faust, but his comic abilities are a delightful discovery. He staged both operas in a style he calls “heightened realism.” By this he means comedy staged in a slightly exaggerated manner that was made famous by artists such as Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Sid Caesar and Carol Burnett. In fact, speaking about his opera, Roussel said that it is “… a sort of opérette-bouffe whose characters are almost entirely grotesque and who should be played without any fear of exaggerating their effect” (quoted from a Grove article by Richard Langham Smith).
Eaton used this concept for both operas, which means that even the simplest of details are fodder for his creative touch. Both operas are laugh-a-minute productions.
Unfortunately, my schedule only allowed me to see the first cast (it’s common for college opera programs to double cast). Of course, the singers bring their own approach, so they are quite different in their interpretation of Eaton’s concept. The staff assured me that both are equally delightful.
Conductor Robert Frankenberry did yeoman’s service in holding it all together. These are difficult operas to conduct and he was right on top of the text all the way.
An outstanding performance came from the gangly Gianni Schicchi of Austin Murray. Vocally and dramatically, he was terrific and dominated the stage from his first entrance—as he should. The willowy Lauretta, delivered by Hannah Leeper, was the most “normal” acting of the madcap cast. She gets the hit tune, “O mio babbino caro,” which she sang with believable intensity. As Rinuccio, David Bogaev sang with his ringing tenor and his duet with Leeper’s Lauretta was a highlight. Also, mention must be made of the trio with Nella (Caroline Busselberg), La Ciesca (Han Hsiao), and Zita (Kelsey Korman).
In Caroline, we have the luxury of a repertory cast, without a specific leading character such as Schicchi. All were excellent and the hysterical slapstick comedy was artfully delivered. The cast includes Joy Mote at Lucine, Baylee Kilgore as Béatrice, Helena Vassiliades as Noémie, Jae Park as Christine, Jason Nichols as Noël, Xavier Bernazard as Ferdinand, Leonardo Quintano as Jobard, Tres Hunter as Maître Corbeau, and Samuel Nolte as Docteur Patogène.
UNT is widely known for its opera program, even rivaling the better-known one at Indiana University in Bloomington. But bringing Eaton has really upped the game. They recent addition of conductor/singer/pianist/coach Frankenberry brings a well-matched partnership to the pit.