John Frayne: New opera company triumphant in debut

A new opera company, called "Opera Venezuela," offered its first production Dec. 2 in Smith Music Hall. The general director of this company is William Gomez, the artistic director is John W. Gomez, and the program sheets stated that this new company is "dedicated to providing cultural opportunities for emerging artists to enhance their artistic growth in Champaign."

For their first offering, with free attendance, they chose Giacomo Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi." This work is the most popular opera of Puccini's "Tryptich" of one-acters, premiered in 1918.

This was a wise choice, in my opinion.

"Gianni Schicchi" has a simple, clear plot, high-spirited music, and offers a large array of roles, from full scale characterizations, such as the title character, to a number of minor characters.

Lots of singers, with varying levels of experience, can get into the act.

The Puccini work is set in the Middle Ages, but this production was performed with 1950s period costumes, and a small orchestra, ably conducted by James Blachly, provided the accompaniment. There were supertitles projected above the performers and minimal stage props and sets.

In the days before Krannert Center for the Performing Arts opened, operas were staged in Smith Hall, and I vividly remember such performances from the 1960s.

Puccini's setting of the libretto by Giovacchino Forzano, based upon a passage in Dante Alighieri's "Inferno," resulted in a comic masterpiece. The plot concerns the death of Buoso Donati, who, to the horror of his relatives, has given his money to a monastery.

The relatives appeal to Gianni Schicchi to help them. He takes the place of the dead man and dictates an alternate will in which he gives the choicest properties to himself. The ensemble built around the dictating of the will, with musical threats to the relatives, offers a superb comic moment.

And the large cast took full advantage of Puccini's inspirations. Timothy Renner gave a strong performance as Gianni Schicchi. This character enters late on stage but dominates the proceedings from then on, and Renner acted and sang this spotlighted role with assurance.

Megan Liles, as Zita, was also very effective in her leading role among the avaricious family members.

Dane Suarez sang with gusto the aria proclaiming the glories of Florence in his role as the young lover Rinuccio.

The most famous two minutes of the opera is Lauretta's plea to her father, Gianni Schicchi, to help her and her lover, Rinuccio to get married with the money from Donati's legacy.

Jihyun Kim sweetly and clearly sang one of Puccini's most famous arias, "O mio babbino caro," to notable effect and was rewarded with strong applause.

I attended the 5:30 p.m. show on Sunday; in the 7:30 show, Tania Arazi Coambs sang Lauretta, and John W. Gomez sang Rinuccio.

This staging was directed by Stephen Fiol, and he expertly managed the acting of the large cast to match the changing tensions of the plot.

Among the singers in this fine ensemble performance were Stephen Boyer as Gherardo, Stefanie Greene as Nella, Madeline Whitesell as Gherardino, Richard Schonberg as Betto, Lyle Jackson as Marco, Samantha Resser as La Ciesca, David Barkley as Spinelloccio, Ricardo Sepulveda as the Notary, Daniel Judd as Pinellino, and Vaggelis Sotiropoulos as Guccio.

I do not know how many rehearsals this company has in Smith Music Hall. Some of the singers seemed to have difficulty at first in focusing their voices to the acoustics of a hall of that size. But, later into the opera, the problem cleared up.

Before the music began, UI Professor of Voice Jerold Siena gave an enlightening talk about the backgrounds of the opera.

At the end of the Puccini work, Gianni Schicchi tells the audience that the great poet Dante sent him to hell for his sin of fraud, but he hoped we would applaud. And so we did, heartily.

And I applaud the appearance of this new company. We certainly could enjoy a wider variety of operatic offerings in Champaign-Urbana.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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