There are a number of ways an opera company can tie works together for a multi-opera production: by composer, plot theme, or perhaps as a vehicle for a particular singer. For its principal operatic production this season, The Princeton Festival joined two one-act operas together based on literary source material. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Francesca da Rimini draws its storyline from the early cantos of Dante’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. To round out the evening, Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk pulled Giacomo Puccini’s comic Gianni Schicchi away from its usual trilogy companions, exploiting the opera’s Dante source material to create an operatic evening reminding us all why we should behave. This “double bill” premiered June 23 and was repeated to a packed Matthews Theatre house this past Saturday afternoon.
Rachmaninoff composed his one-act setting of Francesca da Rimini at the turn of the 20th century, during Russia’s revolution. Rachmaninoff composed the crucial love duet between Francesca and Paolo first and then put the opera aside. During those ensuing years, he became acquainted with the music of Richard Wagner, which considerably influenced the orchestration of the opera. The rich orchestral fabric is a character unto itself, full of leitmotifs and dark sonorities. The action in this opera moved slowly at times, and The Princeton Festival Orchestra brought out every nuance (including some very creepy string effects). Rachmaninoff’s ability to mesmerize through orchestration was particularly evident when Paolo and Francesca finally give in to their desires over a lush 51-measure orchestral passage.
Princeton Festival stage director Steven LaCosse cleverly further embedded the Dante link into the evening by staging Dante (played by Samuel Green) at a writing desk as text from Divine Comedy floated above the stage. In this first of the double bill of operas, Dante and his companion, the ghost of Virgil (played by Nathaniel Olson) had the tough job of staying animated onstage for the entire opera, observing the action.
The most commanding voice of the evening belonged to baritone Stephen Gaertner, who sang both the roles of Malatesta in the Rachmaninoff and Gianni Schicchi in the subsequent Puccini opera. Mr. Gaertner is a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera, and had no trouble taking over the stage and convincing the audience of his torment. Soprano Caroline Worra, also a past Met singer, particularly excelled at floating the very high passages of her role, which was full of pathos at being married to the wrong man. Tenor Rolando Sanz handled well his role as the “other man,” somehow knowing that Francesca would eventually come around.
Key to the success of this opera, full of long orchestral interludes, was Graham Lustig’s choreography, setting four dances as other condemned souls. This production also created great opportunities for lighting and technology, fully exploited by set designer Mark Pirolo and lighting designer Norman Coates. With this teamwork, The Princeton Festival managed to balance a heavily symphonic work with visuals and vocals.
The operatic mood shifted considerably with Gianni Schicchi — a character referenced briefly in Dante’s Inferno, but rooted in 13th-century Florentine history. Puccini was highly successful when he set the story of Gianni Schicchi in the 16th-century commedia dell’arte tradition, with all the patter and vocal intricacy Italian audiences were used to hearing from the time of Rossini. Mr. Gaertner returned in the title role, still commanding the stage, but relaxed in intensity and clearly enjoying the comedic physicality as he elaborately scammed the rest of the family. Ms. Worra also returned as one of the related wives, showing a slightly different singing style than the first opera. By the time this opera premiered, audiences were likely expecting great melodies from Puccini, and one of the most peculiar moments in the opera is when amidst all the comedic patter comes one of the great melodic gems of opera. Soprano Jodi Burns delivered “O mio babbino caro” with a touch of innocence in a relaxed but quick tempo. A cast of underhanded and conniving relatives (performed animatedly all around) swarmed around Schicchi, also enjoying the chance to cut loose a bit (and have fun making a huge mess onstage). Soprano Jamie Van Eyck was particularly well made up and dressed to portray La Ciesca with elaborate snootiness.
The Princeton Festival operatic “double bill” was an impressive handful for the one evening alone, but combined with the more than thirty events the festival produced in three weeks no doubt made the Princeton community appreciate all the more how much work it was to put these two operas together and bring them to the stage. The Rachmaninoff opera in particular is rarely heard, and the two works together cemented the Festival’s reputation as a high-level opera presenter.