Ever since Giacomo Puccini wrote the three one-act operas in his Il Trittico, opera companies have been mixing and matching them with short works by other composers.
The Canadian Opera Company's current pairing – Puccini's Gianni Schicchi with Alexander Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy – opened at the Four Seasons Centre on Thursday. It makes a lot of sense, for several reasons.
Most obviously, both are set in Florence. Also, both are products of the early 20th century. But beneath the surface there are other connections: both are about the choices people make at the dubious crossroads where love and money meet.
In the hands of singer-turned-director Catherine Malfitano, the operas were brought from the Renaissance to modern times – Zemlinsky's to the 1920s and Puccini's to the present day. Happily, they came through the time machine intact, and with value added. Through her updated stagings, Malfitano persuasively argues that human nature hasn't changed much in the last 500 years.
Leaving the familiar to the last, the COC opened its double-bill with Zemlinsky's rarely heard A Florentine Tragedy. There are only three characters in the cast – yet in Max Meyerfeld's libretto (based on the play by Oscar Wilde) this little triangle is a hornet's nest of emotion.
When the merchant Simone comes home to find Prince Guido Bardi with his wife, Bianca, everyone at first behaves as though nothing is amiss. But one thing leads to another – and soon the men are at drawn swords, with Bianca urging the Prince to kill her husband.
All three singers rose to the occasion, with taut and edgy performances. Bass-baritone Alan Held's Simone had an iron fist in his velvet glove, and was a commanding figure both vocally and dramatically. And with his strong but supple tenor voice, Michael König conveyed the easy power and ready contempt of a man born to privilege. As the abused wife Bianca, soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin spent much of the time seething in silent rage. But when opportunities arose to shine vocally, she seemed challenged by Zemlinsky's complex harmonies.
However, conductor Sir Andrew Davis and the COC Orchestra delved effectively into Zemlinsky's multilayered and tonally sophisticated score. Under Davis, foreground ideas were separated from backgrounds, and tempos always moved the music forward.
In Gianni Schicchi, Davis took his orchestra on a romp, underscoring all the hijinks in this screwball-comedy of an opera. And Malfitano's eye for detail and timing made the show run with the zany precision of a Rube Goldberg machine.
Designer Wilson Chin's set for A Florentine Tragedy – an elegantly simple grey interior – returned in a reconfigured state for Gianni Schicchi, piled high with household junk. When a dysfunctional family was added to the mess, the result was like a mash-up of Hoarders and The Sopranos.
Also returning to the stage for the second half of the COC's double bill was Held, as Schicchi – making the transition from enraged cuckold to clever trickster with ease.
Gianni Schicchi also featured a fine performance from tenor René Barbera, as a sincere and ardent Rinuccio. His clear, ringing voice makes him the perfect fellow to get the girl in an Italian opera.
And last, but not least, Simone Osborne lived the dream of every young soprano by singing O mio babbino caro at centre stage in a packed opera house. Much to her credit, her delivery was sweet and simple – without the distortions that sometimes mar this aria.
Adding lustre to this new double bill is the fact that it's a company-built production, not a rental. Congratulations to the COC – this one's a keeper.
A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi
- The Canadian Opera Company
- At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto
A Florentine Tragedy/Gianni Schicchi run in Toronto until May 25.
Special to The Globe and Mail