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Chicago Opera Theater 'La Voix Humaine' and 'Gianni Schicchi'

by Colleen Cottet
Tuesday Feb 9, 2016
Chicago Opera Theater 'La Voix Humaine' and 'Gianni Schicchi'

Chicago Opera Theater continues its season with a unique double bill of one-act operas: "La Voix Humaine," by mid-20th century French composer Francis Poulenc, and "Gianni Schicchi," by early 20th century Italian composer Giacoma Puccini. Though dissimilar in theme and design, both combined offer a wonderfully entertaining evening that delights both opera aficionados and novices alike.

Poulenc's "La Voix Humaine" is based on a play by well-known French playwright Jean Cocteau and originally premiered in Paris in 1959. It features a single character, Elle (American soprano Patricia Racette), who is dressed for bed but answers the telephone before retiring. Her former lover is on the other end of the call, and over the course of the next forty minutes, we listen to Elle's end of the conversation as they discuss their failed romance.

Elle blames herself for their troubled history, and clearly carries a torch for the man, whom she believes has moved on to a new girlfriend. Her tale of obsessive love is intriguing to spy upon, culminating in a surprising and tragic end.

  (Source:Michael Brosilow)

Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" stands in stark contrast to the dark "La Voix Humaine." "Gianni" is a comedic one-act opera based, in part, on an incident in Dante's "Divine Comedy." It was originally presented as the final part of "Il trittico," or "The Triptych," which was a collection of three one-act operas that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918.

"Gianni Schicchi" opens with the family of Buoso Donati surrounding his body on his death bed. Concerned more for the intent of his will than the sorrow of his passing, they are collectively shocked and dismayed to discover that the bulk of his estate has been bequeathed to the church. In particular, young Rinuccio (tenor Christopher Tiesi) is devastated, as he desires to marry Lauretta (soprano Emily Birsan). She is the daughter of newcomer Schicchi (baritone Michael Chioldi), and he will only allow her to marry a man of means.

The family implores Schicchi to imitate Donati, in hopes of fooling his lawyer and notary into revising Donati's will. Hilarity ensues as Schicchi agrees, and the family members are left caught in their own deception as Schicchi takes matters into his own hands.

Combining these two pieces into a double-bill was an unusual choice, but a very intriguing one. To bring together contrasting themes, styles, and origins is certainly in keeping with COT's mission of "inspiring a diverse community."

"Humaine" was a fascinating premise, both thematically and stylistically reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock. Racette is a marvel as the tormented Elle, and though at times the narrative drags, her vocal range and her magnetic presence pull the audience through Elle's plight.

In contrast, it's a breath of fresh air to dive into the comedy of "Gianni Schicchi." This particular version has been translated into English, yet loses none of the poetry of the original Italian. Set in the 1960s, the colorful, psychedelic style adds to the sense of whimsy, and all of the performers give their characters wonderful spice and energy. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Landis and baritone Bruce Hall as cousins Zita and Simone blend comic timing and vocal range seamlessly, and Tiesi and Birsan are engaging as the opera's starry-eyed lovers.

But it is Chioldi as Schicchi who offered my favorite performance. Bursting onto the stage like some bizarre love-child of Andy Warhol and Liberace, this version of Gianni Schicchi is nothing like anything Puccini dreamed up, and is all the more delightful because of that.

"La Voix Humaine & Gianni Schicchi" runs through Feb. 14 at Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St in Chicago. For information or tickets, call 312-334-7777 or visit www.cot.org

Colleen Cottet is a freelance writer and playwright, having written for such diverse publications as American Teen, Veterinary Technician, and the Journal of Ordinary Thought. Her work has been performed at the Chicago Park District and About Women. She resides in Chicago.


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