One of Puccini’s greatest hits, “O mio babbino caro” is usually the point at which the opera “Gianni Schicchi” grinds to a halt. Ravishing though young Lauretta’s love song is, it freezes the drama. Not here. “O my beloved father,” sings Dina Kuznetsova, stopping the title character (Bryn Terfel) in his tracks mid-exit. In fact, he’s so far offstage that only one hand is left visible — so she sings to that. Her heartfelt singing drags him back until he capitulates, wrapping her in a fatherly embrace as the music climaxes. It’s an inspired marriage of music and staging that typifies Richard Jones’ enchanting production.
Most opera house laughter is generated not from stage activity but from the wit of the surtitles, but Jones’ meticulous direction of first-rate singers proves that “comic opera” needn’t be a contradiction in terms.
In Jones’ Fellini-esque “Gianni Schicchi,” a gaggle of family members is attending a rich, elderly relative who is dying. Whether lined around the sweeping curve of John Macfarlane’s amusingly run-down, over-wallpapered, low-ceilinged bedroom, or clustered about the bed, they’re torn between vying with each other for the best mourner award and hunting for the will.
Desperate to stop the dying man’s money from going to monks, the snobbish family enlists the aid of wily Gianni Schicchi who, despite being — horrors — a peasant, comes up with a plan to rewrite the will.
Recipient of three Oliviers for opera productions and two for theater, Jones’ winning approach harnesses controlled exaggeration of emotion and idea to piercingly truthful observation. Every moment of stage time is filled. Picking up countless cues from Puccini’s fast-moving score — influenced not a little by Verdi’s equally rumbustious “Falstaff” — his cast’s perfs are rich in detail.
By the gleam of his voice and beam in his eye, Terfel is quite clearly having a ball. Like everyone in the cast, he moves beyond merely singing in character. His vocal ease — everything from furious bellow to witty impersonation of the not-quite-dead man — is just one element of an unusually active performance.
The rest of the cast is ripping up floorboards, yanking up the mattress beneath him, and making unholy alliances. They make venality and ruthlessness seriously funny.
Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes do everyone huge favors, whether it’s Marie McLaughlin’s La Ciesca, bursting out of clinging floral silks, Joan Rodgers going for broke in a beehive hairdo or Elena Zilio’s Zita, fiercely admonitory in a marvelously frumpy, buttoned-up suit.
Neither of the other one-act operas that make up Puccini’s “Il Trittico” are of the quality of “Gianni Schicchi,” but divorcing it from its context presents a problem: What to put with this one-hour work? Jones’ solution, “L’Heure Espagnole,” turns out to be an inspired choice.
Jones takes Ravel’s one-act charmer and gives it the full Almodovar. And considering that this time-ticking tale is all about the wife of a clockmaker in hot pursuit of a sunny afternoon of extra-marital, why not?
Macfarlane’s set is an over-the-top shop of dusky pink walls dotted with illuminated clocks. The overture, complete with audible ticking metronomes and crooning woodwind, accompanies the stage-within-the-stage trucking gently toward the audience.
Conductor Antonio Pappano ensures that Ravel’s superbly orchestrated heat shimmers throughout the score right up to the outbursts of plush string and brass at climactic moments.
Fresh from playing coke-snorting lad Nerone in David McVicar’s outstanding “Agrippina” at English National Opera, Christine Rice dons a fuchia-edged skirt and wiggles and flirts her way though the role of Concepcion. Rich though her dark-toned mezzo voice is, her perf is slightly unspontaneous.
Her trio of lovers, however, could not be better cast. Andrew Shore’s amorous old roue is matched by the amusing self-obsession of Yann Beuron’s bright-orange-clad poet.
Bemoaning the fecklessness of these two, Concepcion’s eye is finally drawn to the possibilities of increasingly undressed workman Ramiro (Christopher Maltman). He thinks nothing of picking up grandfather clocks with suitors hidden inside, hoisting them onto his shoulder and hauling them up to her bedroom.
It doesn’t hurt his relationship with either Concepcion or the audience that while keeping his typically characterful baritone bright, Maltman shyly sheds layers of clothes. By the time he’s finally down to a tank top, it’s clear that if his voice ever packs up he can model for Abercrombie and Fitch.
All of which is perfect for a piece aglow with vibrancy and sexual availability. By the time Jones adds Susan Stroman-style, bespangled showgirls in glitter and plumes, pouring out of the clocks for the closing quintet, it’s not just Concepcion who has lost her heart to everything on show.