Silver Screen Pedigree on Loan
Hollywood Directors Bring Their Flair for Drama To Interpretations of Puccini and a Cult Classic

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Woody Allen made his opera debut on Saturday.

This was the biggest news from the movie-themed opening weekend of the Los Angeles Opera's 2008-09 season. Not that Allen was the only attraction among the luminaries involved -- William Friedkin, director of "The Exorcist," took on two of the three one-act operas of Puccini's "Il Trittico," and David Cronenberg directed an operatic version of "The Fly" with music by his frequent collaborator Howard Shore. It was just that he did the best job.

He directed "Gianni Schicchi," the last part of "Il Trittico," and the only comic one.

It is nothing new for opera houses are reaching out to film and theater directors. Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli moved easily from film to opera; others who have worked in both mediums include Volker Schloendorff, Werner Herzog and Lina Wertmueller. Anthony Minghella's "Madame Butterfly" was a hit at the English National Opera and the Met. Julie Taymor is fluent in both genres. In short: Reaching out to the film industry -- as Plácido Domingo has assiduously done in his capacity as the L.A. Opera's general director, engaging John Schlesinger, Maximilian Schell, Bruce Beresford and Gary Marshall, among others -- is not just a Hollywood gimmick.

One might expect that film directors would turn opera on its head. But in practice, as last weekend proved again, the biggest problem is that they are so in awe of the medium that they resort to stock "operatic" gestures and tropes they would never use in a film. Take the tiny moment in Friedkin's pseudo-naturalistic "Il Tabarro" (Part 1 of "Il Trittico") when Mark Delavan, as the bargeman Michele, embraced his wife, Giorgetta (Anja Kampe), and sang (in a hollow, husky voice not quite suited to the part) of a happier past. The way Delavan raised his hand evoked the past, all right: It was the kind of gesture that has been stereotyped as "operatic" for decades.

Opera, of course, is not naturalistic. But it is a mistake to think that it can therefore be phony -- or inconsistent. If Friedkin has Michele spot Giorgetta in a passionate embrace with the dockworker Luigi (Salvatore Licitra), highlighting the moment by casting Michele's shadow dramatically on the wall, then it does not make sense for Michele to wonder aloud later whom Giorgetta's lover might be. (Licitra was the strongest vocal presence onstage at the beginning of the opera but had sung himself ragged by the end.) If Seth Brundle (Daniel Okulitch), the scientist protagonist of "The Fly," sings that he is about to teleport a baboon, the animal in his teleporter should not be a small, white monkey. Contemporary opera directors perpetrate all manner of egregious violations on opera plots, but these instances Saturday seemed less the result of wrong-headed directorial concept than carelessness or a belief that details don't matter because opera is artificial anyway.

Certainly, David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly"), who wrote the libretto for the disastrous "Fly," appeared to follow a formula that equates opera with ridiculous situations, overblown sentiments and lots of repetition. Not surprisingly, the result was ridiculous, overblown and repetitive. And ponderous. Even the attempts at levity were heavy-handed: like the liberal use of "Help me! Help me!" and "Be afraid. Be very afraid," the catchphrases of the 1958 and 1986 movies.

Shore's music was ponderous as well. Classical critics often use the term "film score" as a pejorative, but the flexibility and variety of Shore's movies (like "The Lord of the Rings") would have been a welcome relief here. But no, this was an opera, and the composer therefore trundled out dense, unalloyed string passages beyond the skill of Domingo, who conducted the premiere in Paris in July as well as here, to alleviate. It all added up to one of the worst things I have ever seen on an opera stage. "Help me! Help me!" indeed.

Of course, musical performance is paramount. If "Il Trittico" left a glowing impression, it was mainly because it offered some strikingly good singing and was supported by the luminous (and detail-oriented!) conducting of James Conlon, the company's music director. Part 2, "Suor Angelica," was a particular standout: Sondra Radvanovsky's Angelica was a veritable sensation. Radvanovsky sings with a certain coolness, her voice not rich but substantial, like chardonnay. She often seems to me more admirable than lovable, but she was pretty terrific here, from big climaxes to a pianissimo held out beyond what seemed humanly possible. The deep, agile and slightly dry voice of Larissa Diadkova, as the wealthy and horrible aunt who has put her in a convent, was on a comparable level. Add a sprinkling of fine nuns, including Jennifer Black and Tichina Vaughn, and one of the most emotionally manipulative plots in the repertory, and the whole thing packed a considerable wallop, even though Friedkin went into all-out "opera" mode for the concluding miracle, having a figure of the Virgin descend from the heavens to reunite the dying Angelica with her dead child in a blaze of church light. (Friedkin has directed a number of operas; his upcoming dates include an opera version of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" at La Scala in 2011.)

For all opera's artificiality, it works best when some emotional truth is conveyed. And Woody Allen, for all of the reservations he expressed in interviews before the opening, got this in spades. Rather than being over-awed with the opera-ness of it all, he simply plunged into the comedy of "Schicchi" and created something fresh and funny. True to himself, he cast it in film terms, starting with opening titles (projected over tinny recorded silent-film music) that list spoof Italian names such as Luigi Impetigo and others that can't be printed here.

He also appeared to work well with the singers. Thomas Allen, a veteran baritone, is always a class act, but he surpassed himself in the title role and seemed to be having the time of his life. The petit-bourgeois family of the late Buoso Donati disdain Schicchi as a foreigner from Sicily, so Allen the director cast Allen the singer as a pinstriped, brilliantined, mustachioed Mafioso. His pouting, sensuous daughter Lauretta (Laura Tatulescu, with a pretty soprano), wearing a dress that looked more like a slip, was an obvious object of desire to Rinuccio (Saimir Pirgu, taut of voice but appealing) and a tart to everybody else. Holding her own with Allen the singer was Jill Grove, who as Zita, a matriarch of the Donati family, sang with a voice about two sizes larger than anyone else's. (Rebekah Camm, who was Alcina at Wolf Trap this summer, made her company debut in the small part of Nella.)

And Allen had a great eye for detail. Santo Loquasto, his regular set designer and no stranger to opera, provided a fine black-and-white set (in keeping with the movie theme) that merged Florence and the Lower East Side in a crowded apartment surrounded with ranks of laden clotheslines that almost obscured a view of the Duomo. This was the backdrop for a steady stream of slapstick: So much was happening (a missing will found in a pasta pot; Gherardino [Sage Ryan], a little boy, doing one naughty thing after another, including swilling booze and shooting craps) that it was impossible to follow it all.

And then, having wrenched the evening from opera into film with the opening credits, Allen thrust it back into the world of opera just as abruptly at the end. Zita unexpectedly returned and stabbed Schicchi in the chest. Suddenly, we were immersed in operatic tragedy, and Schicchi's last words were the utterance of a dying man. Look, Allen effectively said: It isn't film after all; it's opera, and I'm doing it. He convinced me. The only theatrical misstep he made in my book was his failure to come out and acknowledge in person the standing ovation.

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