Lust, Greed Link Puccini, Zemlinski Music-Dramas: Review

Alan Held, Michael Konig and Gun-Brit Barkmin in "A Florentine Tragedy." The new production is being presented by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto through May 25. Photographer: Michael Cooper/COC via Bloomberg

Simone, a swaggering merchant, arrives home to find his wife, Bianca, in the arms of a smooth prince of the city.

The two men play a high-stakes game of chicken as Simone convinces the cuckolder to purchase his wares, among them a magnificent robe worthy of a Medici scion.

The bargaining culminates in a swordfight that ends with Simone strangling the prince.

Throughout, they sing increasingly agitated music by the once admired Alexander Zemlinsky, who fled the Nazis and died, neglected, in Larchmont, New York.

“A Florentine Tragedy” is so rarely heard, I journeyed up to Toronto last weekend, where the adventurous Canadian Opera Company is presenting it with Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” a giddy farce about a dead oldster, his will and his greedy relatives.

“Schicchi” is usually presented as the comic relief in Puccini’s “Il Trittico” with “Il Tabarro” and “Suor Angelica.”

Zemlinsky’s “Tragedy” is based on an unfinished drama by Oscar Wilde; “Schicchi” was extracted from Dante’s “Inferno.”

Both staged by soprano-turned director Catherine Malfitano and united by the Florence setting, the unlikely pair make for a provocative study in contrasts.

Parlor Games

Malfitano places the Zemlinski melodrama in the parlor of a palazzo in the 1920s, where the Puccini comedy also unfolds, a half-century later.

We saw the ancient Buoso Donati expiring, leaving everything to the monks. Enter the cunning Gianni Schicchi, whose dowry-less daughter Lauretta wants to marry Donati’s nephew.

At Lauretta’s importuning (in the evening’s big crowd-pleasing aria, “O mio babbino caro”), he devises a plan to reclaim the estate, taking a sizable slice for himself as the assorted heirs look on in horror, powerless.

The star of both was the charismatic American bass-baritone Alan Held, singing Simone in “Florentine” and the title role in “Schicchi.” In the former, he’s a Bruce Willis- style cock-of-the-walk; in the latter, a Crocodile Dundee-style rogue. In both, his acting is as virile as his singing.

Italian Joke

German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin is a sexy Bianca in a Louise Brooks bob and, in the Puccini, a lithe Nella. Barbara Dever shines as the stalwart Zita. Simone Osborne, a product of the Canadian company’s training program, sings a sulkily coquettish Lauretta.

The handsome parlor was designed by Wilson Chin and moodily lit by David Martin Jacques. In “Florentine,” it’s posh and dominated by a Richard Avedon-like portrait of the berobed Simone and Bianca, presumably naked (only her shoulders are revealed).

For “Schicchi,” the set becomes a joke about the Italian predilection for refurbishment, with household junk piled high among drop cloths as the blue light of a TV screen dominates Schicchi’s death-sofa-bed.

An obviously confident Sir Andrew Davis led the terrific orchestra, earning warm applause at the final curtain.

Restaurant note: Stay Italian with dinner afterward at the stylish, superb Nota Bene, just a few blocks away at 180 Queen St. West. Chef/co-owner Andrew Lee’s signature dishes like cavatelli in a truffled, meatless Bolognese and scallops made potent with tomatillo, guajillo puree and coriander are standouts in a sleek yet inviting setting.

Through May 25 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. Information: +1-416-363-8231; Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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