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Woody Allen Meets Placido Domingo To Open LA Opera Season

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It's certainly fitting that LA Opera has kicked off its 30th anniversary season with a double bill of the company's own historically successful one-act productions and that its legendary General Director Placido Domingo performs in both of them, albeit in different capacities. For the curtain raiser Domingo sings the title role of Gianni Schicchi in a production that Woody Allen directed for LA Opera in 2008. Then, in a nifty switch, Domingo dons a tux after intermission to lead the pit orchestra for Franco Zeffirelli's 1996 production of the classic short opera Pagliacci.

Both of these stagings re-situate their respective works in the 20th century. Puccini's only comic opera, Gianni Schicchi is a fun little tale of greed and fraud originally set in 13th-century Florence, but here transported to what looks like a little before World War II. Allen and three-time Tony Award-winning production designer Santo Loquasto conceived this presentation of the opera as a simulated black and white movie, with sets and costumes both dominated by gray-scale tones. Before the opera begins, there's even a series of jocular screen-projected opening credit titles with perfect early Allen-style mock-Italian actor and character names.

Earlier in his career, of course, Domingo performed (and recorded) the romantic tenor role in this piece, but now that he's matured into baritone parts, he portrays the scheming Schicchi with gregarious charm and subtle wit. Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman is passionate and graceful in the opera's lone big aria, "O mio babbino caro" ("Oh My Beloved Father"). Above all, though, this production's high charisma comes from a fine ensemble cast playing the various family members of a dying man, none of whom can conceal that they are more anxious about their respective shares of his estate than they are distressed at his demise.

Two decades after Zeffirelli's LA Opera Pagliacci debuted with Domingo in the role of Canio (they also collaborated on a film version of Mascagni's melodramatic tragedy in the 1980s), the singer returns to the production as a conductor for the second half of the present double header. This time around, Canio is sung by Marco Berti, who a couple years ago took on the tenor lead in LA Opera's Tosca, also with Domingo at the baton (no pressure there, we suppose). Berti is strong as the angry cuckolded clown, and his rendition of what may be the most recognizable aria in all of opera, the bitterly emotional "Vesti la Giubba" ("Put on the Costume" or "Laugh, Clown, Laugh"), is gratifyingly idiomatic. Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez is counter-intuitively winsome and sympathetic as Nedda, even though she's fallen in love with another man and is cheating on Canio, while Georgian baritone George Gagnidze delivers the powerful prologue in full clown regalia and then turns appropriately creepy as the jealous Tonio, who fatefully discloses Nedda's affair to her violent husband.

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In stark contrast to the muted palette and moderate-sized cast of Gianni Schicchi, Zeffirelli's production is a kaleidoscopic extravaganza, featuring motor vehicles and live animals, bright lights and acrobats, on stage with the principles and oversized chorus. Raimonda Gaetani's costumes are wonderfully eclectic on a set replicating a contemporary Italian village, complete with a local bar and "Maradona" graffiti on the walls. When Canio and company's circus arrives in town, it's a real spectacle within the spectacle. And even once "the comedy is ended," in Pagliacci's famous last line, the show seems like it could go on and on.

There are three more performances of LA Opera's Gianni Schicchi / Pagliacci double bill. Yusif Eyvazov play Canio on October 3.