‘Suor Angelica’ & ‘Gianni Schicchi’ review: tearful tragedy and family farce

Portland State University Opera’s spring Puccini double-bill strikes a fine and fun balance

by ANGELA ALLEN

PSU Opera always surprises me with the high quality of its productions and the skill of its young singers, many of them undergraduates. This is not professional opera (though advisors and directors are professionals), but it can reach impressive heights, and does in this double bill of two very different, very short Giacomo Puccini one-acts.

The first is a sentimental tragedy that takes place in a convent’s courtyard; the second is a better known opera buffo crowded into a Florentine bedroom. The operas, each about 40 minutes, are expansive and efficient: They provide numerous roles for up-and-coming singers and designer Carey Wong’s clever set is deployed for both operas – an outside setting for Suor Angelica and an inside one for Gianni Schicci.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles, the performance continues April 25-30 at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Saori Erickson in PSU’s ‘Suor Angelica.’

Puccini wrote the operas with librettist Giovacchino Forzano in 1917-1918 and they were first performed with a third, Il Tabarro, at the Met in 1918. Like many opera composers, Puccini has a thing for vulnerable tragic heroines (think Cio-Cio San in Butterfly, La Boheme’s Mimi, etc.) and for sucking us into their dilemmas. But so what? Opera is about excess.

Sister Angelica was shuttled off to the convent seven years earlier for having an illegitimate child. Her haughty aunt, the Princess, sung and acted with requisite harshness by mezzo Grace Skinner, visits the convent and tells Angelica that her son has died. Devastated, Sister Angelica decides to kill herself – and does. At the end, there is a scene with Giotto-tinged-blue skies, floating clouds, and a Madonna in swirling white garb. The Madonna greets Angelica, and Angelica’s son joins her as she enters the pearly gates.

OK. It’s corny. It’s Puccini with a penchant for the syrupy, the over-the-top dramatic, the hopeless moments tinged with hope. But that’s our beloved Puccini.

As Sister Angelica, soprano Saori Erickson throws every inch of herself into Suor Angelica’s only aria, “Senza Mamma,” a fierce lament and love song to her dead child, Erickson makes the final part of the opera soar and fill Lincoln Hall with the help of a very competent student orchestra led by Ken Selden.

Erickson is a gifted singer mentored by professional soprano Pamela South, who has sung her share of Puccini roles with major opera companies. South’s other high-profile pupil of the night, soprano Hope McCaffrey, sings Lauretta in Gianni, the evening’s second opera. She shows her pipes and poise with the oft sung “O Mio Babbino Caro.” McCaffrey sings a bold and touching rendition of the popular aria, but her small role doesn’t dominate Gianni as Sister Angelica does the first tragic opera.

South is doing something right. These women seem to be going places. In 2016, Erickson won the “audience favorite” award at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and several others over recent years.

PSU Opera’s ‘Gianni Schicci.’

Gianni is crowded and crazy with a big cast who portrays the disorganized family of the dying Buoso, a rich uncle of this greedy brood. The handsome Rinuccio (tenor Alex Trull) cooks up the plan to introduce the arrivist Gianni Schicchi to his family to solve the problems with the uncle’s will – Buoso has left everything to the friars – if he, Rinuccio, is allowed to marry Gianni’s daughter, the lovely Lauretta. When the arrivist arrives, he puts everything in motion, replacing the uncle on his deathbed and dictating a new will to the notary, where of course, Gianni ends up with the cream of the wealth.

The zany family’s antics zigzag over the stage and they’re funny, especially those of Shainy Manuel who sings bawdy bewigged redhead Zita. She wriggles her red-ruffled rear at the audience at crucial moments; she has excellent timing.

The music and libretto are sublimely matched in hilariousness, and baritone Darian Hutchinson, who sings Gianni with flair, puts the glue into this opera. Hutchinson graduates this spring from PSU’s music program; this is his sixth PSU role (he sang Figaro and the mayor in Doctor Miracle, among others). He has a future in opera if he wants to grab it.

The ensemble singing is roaring fun with each of the cast members staying in distinctive character. Some critics claim that Puccini lost an opportunity when he never produced a full-length comic opera with such an excellent piece like Gianni showcasing his proclivity for the ridiculous.

Be sure you stick around for both operas. PSU’s singers, instrumentalists and music faculty should feel pretty proud about producing this level of Puccini.

Portland State University Opera’s ‘Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi’ continues at 7:30 p.m. April 25, 28 and 29 and at 3 p.m. on April 30 at Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland.  Tickets are $30 adults, $27 seniors and $15 students at the PSU box office in Lincoln Hall, online, or call the PSU Box Office: 503-725-3307.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

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PSU Opera’s ‘Cinderella’: sweet and silly in the salon

University’s production of Pauline Viardot’s operetta is a fairy tale within a play, set to music

by ANGELA ALLEN

Cinderella is no stranger to the stage. Portland State University’s Cinderella is far from Gioachino Rossini’s 1817 Cenerentola or Jules Massenet’s 1899 version. Neither is it a by-the-book replica of the childhood fairy tale where a pretty downtrodden girl seeks her step-family’s love and that of a prince – and lucks out because the shoe fits!

Instead, Pauline Viardot’s 1904 Cinderella, an operetta not an opera, is a bit of a spoof on that fairy tale, a story within a story. PSU Opera’s production, which runs through Dec. 10 at Lincoln Studio Theater in PSU’s Lincoln Hall, is set in the flamboyant Viardot’s illustrious Parisian cultural salon.

Maeve Stier and Luke Smith sing a heartfelt duet in PSU’s production of Pauline Viardot’s operetta, “Cinderella.”

Viardot, by the way, was a real person, though relatively unknown for her musical work. She entertained such cultural heavyweights as Frederic Chopin, Clara Schumann and Henry James, and was the muse and likely lover of Ivan Turgenev.

Pauline Viardot

Sung in English, with translation by Rachel Harris, Viardot’s chamber operatta is intentionally light, frothy and funny. It has enough roles for this new crop of PSU singers to keep us amused through the 90-minute one-act performance, preceded by a salon-like “greeting” where the cast ushers the audience to their seats in the intimate, 84-seat Lincoln Studio Theater and chats up some of them. Viardot wrote the operetta to be performed by her students at her music salon, and PSU’s crew added a further warm-up of “opera charades,” musical chairs, a dance and songs by Viardot and other women composers of the time like Clara Schumann and Nadia Boulanger, as they might have at the salon.

Then “Madame Viardot” hands out parts to her students to perform her Cinderella. Viardot gives herself the Fairy Godmother role, and Megan Uhrinak, a graduate student, sings the part convincingly. Her solid acting and singing help to hold the show together.

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It’s another busy week on Portland stages, so let’s just jump into the thicket:

Oye Oyá at Milagro. With a book by Rebecca Martinez based on a treatment by Rodolfo Ortega, who also wrote the music and lyrics, the world premiere of Milagro’s new Spanish-language musical play has good bloodlines. Estafanía Fadul directs this tale about a boat, a storm, and the beaches of Cuba, based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Thursday through May 27.

“Oye Oyá” at Milagro: a world premiere. Photo: Russell J Young

Contact Dance Film Festival. The Northwest Film Center and BodyVox collaborate on this cinematic exploration of the world of dance, with screenings at both locations. Thursday-Saturday.

The Talented Ones at Artists Rep. The world premiere of a dark comedy by Yussef El Guindi, whose last show in town, Portland Center Stage’s co-premiere of Threesome, went on to a successful Off-Broadway run. Saturday through May 21.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: full-tilt boogie

Imago tilts the action in a topsy-turvy Greek classic, Brett Campbell's best music bets, "Jersey Boys" croons into town, new theater & dance

The question echoes down the centuries from the Greek myths and Euripides’ play, which was first set on stage in 431 B.C. and just keeps coming back: was Medea balancing the scales of justice when she murdered her husband’s new wife and her own children, or was she falling off her rocker? People have been arguing the point ever since (Medea shocked its original audience, coming in dead last in that year’s City of Dionysia festival), and the question of teetering out of control remains foremost, right down to Ben Powers’ recent adaptation of Medea for the National Theatre in London.

The ups and downs of rehearsal: Imago’s tilting stage for “Medea.” Imago Theatre photo.

Enter Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, whose own theories of balance reach back to his mentor Jacques Lecoq, the French mime and movement master who advocated a “balance of the stage.” In 1998 Mouawad and Imago took the advice literally, creating a large movable stage, suspended three feet above the floor, that tips and leans as the actors shift position on it. They used it for an acclaimed production of Sartre’s No Exit, in which the constantly shifting balances became a metaphor for the play itself. The show was revived several times and traveled to theaters across the country.

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