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Woody Allen makes opera directing debut

Shy 72-year-old filmmaker Woody Allen would take no bows after his successful debut as an opera director despite prolonged applause from the crowd.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Woody Allen would take no bows.

He had just made his successful debut as an opera director Saturday, creating a hilarious and memorable production of "Gianni Schicchi," the third of the one-act presentations in Puccini's "Il Trittico." The Los Angeles Opera's opening-night audience at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion kept applauding, wanting to see the 72-year-old filmmaker join the cast and conductor James Conlon for the curtain call.

But Allen remained out of view, unwilling to come onstage because of shyness, according to the company.

With the music world celebrating December's 150th anniversary of Puccini's birth, director William Friedkin started the night with dark stagings of "Il Tabarro" and "Suor Angelica." Allen immediately brought laughter from the auditorium when he began "Gianni Schicchi" by having credits projected in black and white onto a movie screen. The names were nonsensical, such as Giuseppe Prosciutto, Aldo Melone and Vitello Tonato, to mention three of the more printable.

Then, when the madcap action unfolded, it was clear that he viewed the opera, which takes place in 1299, as an old Italian film. Santo Loquasto's sets, with Florence's Duomo in the background, were in black and white and gray. So were the costumes and the laundry clipped to clothing lines throughout. The only deviations from the color scheme were the singers' faces and a few yellow lamps.

A young boy, humorously played by precocious 9-year-old Sage Ryan, is cautioned not to play with a knife and then tries to make away with a beer. The owner of the house, Buoso Donati, has just died and his family is searching for his will — under the bed, under his body and even under his nightcap. Finally it is found — in a pot of pasta.

Once they learn he is donating his possessions to charity, they cook up a scheme to get the land and money for themselves. The oily Gianni Schicchi will impersonate the deceased and dictate a new will to a notary. The elegant baritone Thomas Allen, transformed with slick black hair and a thin villain's mustache, takes over — and of course assigns the best properties to himself.

More than most opera directors, Woody Allen pays attention to the small details that make a performance take off. Donati is propped up with a cup in his hand so realistically outside the door that passers-by think he's beggar and drop coins. An unexpected ending is added when Buoso's cousin Zita (Jill Grove) returns to the stage and stabs Schicchi as he sings his final notes — tying the comedy to the violent dramas that preceded.

Only misstep belongs to audienceA vibrant cast was assembled that also included Laura Tatulescu (Lauretta) and Saimir Pirgu (Rinuccio) as the young lovers, Andrea Silvestrelli (Simone) and Lauren McNeese (La Ciesca). The only misstep was caused by the audience, with a significant percentage breaking into applause before Tatulescu repeated the final line of "O mio babbino caro," ruining the mood. (The audience also was a problem in "Suor Angelica," with one spectator shouting "Brava!" in the middle of an aria.)

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"Il Tabarro," set by a barge docked along with Seine, was the weakest performance of the three operas. Tenor Salvatore Licitra, who also sang Luigi in the Metropolitan Opera's production last year, didn't make much of a dramatic impression. The voice of soprano Anja Kampe (Giorgetta) caught slightly in one instance. Baritone Mark Delavan, the barge owner who is married to Giorgetta, dominated as Michele. Upon learning of his wife's affair, Michele kills Luigi and hides the corpse in a cloak only to reveal it to the horrified Giorgetta.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sang fabulously in the title role of the tear-jerker "Sour Angelica," earning a deserved standing ovation. Coming from a noble family, Angelica entered a convent years earlier after giving birth out of wedlock. When her aunt, the Principessa, informs her that her son has died, she kills herself to join her son in heaven.

Larissa Diadkova, dressed head to toe in black — even her walking stick — played the Principessa with a striking mean-spiritedness. Friedkin has the Virgin Mary descend from the stars as Angelica's son appears during the final notes, and another nun walks onstage to witness the miracle and confirm it isn't a delusion. Conlon restored an aria near the end of the opera, "Amici fiore," that he said had not been fully performed in a major U.S. opera house since the world premiere run at the Met in 1918.

Conlon, the company's music director, produced a rich sound from the orchestra. Working with general director Placido Domingo, he has transformed the Los Angeles Opera into an increasingly interesting company. Domingo was to conduct Sunday's U.S. premiere of composer Howard Shore's "The Fly;" the first two installments of a new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle are up ahead early next year; and the 2009-10 season features Domingo as Pablo Neruda in the world premiere of Daniel Catan's "Il Postino," with tenor Rolando Villazon also in the cast.