Puccini’s operatic smorgasbord — three one-act, hourlong music dramas, different in content but alike in the excellence of their fashioning — provided a capacity crowd with something for everyone to open the L.A. Opera’s 23rd season on Saturday. The three works all shared the strong, unifying beat of music director James Conlon, emerging on his Los Angeles podium as one of opera’s major shaping forces anywhere.
Attention naturally focused on Woody Allen’s first-time-anywhere operatic involvement, directing “Gianni Schicchi,” the third work in the “Triptych,” a glorious boondoggle of a farce-comedy set in Dante’s Florence. Truth to tell, it did not start well, with a movie screen full of sophomoric wordplay with funny Italian words — e.g., “impetigo” — familiar from the Woody of old. After that, Allen did manage a properly whizzing delivery of the wonderful piece, aided by Thomas Allen (no relation) in the title role and by Santo Loquasto’s set design of a cluttered Italian tenement of any and all times.
Before that there came William Friedkin’s splendid productions of “Il Tabarro,” with Loquasto’s evocative facsimile of a Paris riverfront barge colony, and “Suor Angelica,” against a simple corner of a decaying countryside convent. (Previously, Friedkin directed a fine “Gianni Schicchi” for the company in 2002.)
“Tabarro,” with its marvelous vignettes of minor characters who come and go, and its orchestra full of dabs of French perfume, is the strongest of the three works. Baritone Mark Delavan delivered an overwhelming performance as the love-denied barge captain turned murderous. Anja Kampe was equally strong as his put-upon wife.
In “Angelica” the frail, lavender-scented sounds of Puccini’s nuns at play, work and worship do try the patience at times. They were made bearable this time by the sensitive direction of chorus master Grant Gershon. Sondra Radvanovsky was the tormented Angelica, no less sinned against than sinning. As further expiation in this production, she was rewarded with an extra aria usually cut. It served to prolong poor Angelica’s death scene and left her resurrected bambino alone on the stage with nothing to do.