The folks at L.A. Opera must want to make doubly sure they don’t miss a trick in celebrating the company’s 30th anniversary this year. Instead of launching the new season at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with one classic opera, they’re starting with two — each of which requires its own elaborate set and features visually arresting production by distinctly different filmmakers: Woody Allen and Franco Zeffirelli.
Speaking of dualities, LAO leader Plácido Domingo robustly sings the title role in the revival of Allen’s 2008 staging of composer Giacomo Puccini and librettist Giovacchino Forzano’s comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi before climbing down into the orchestra pit to passionately conduct Ruggero Leoncavallo’s tears-of-a-clown tragedy, Pagliacci. Ramping up the spectacle in the latter is Zeffirelli’s delightful re-creation of an Italian street and row of three-story apartments, which is populated by a huge cast of colorfully dressed clowns, stilt walkers, rhythmic gymnasts, jugglers, hookers, unicyclists, nosy townspeople and an incredibly patient, straw hat–wearing donkey named Sue.
The program starts with a very short, pointedly old-timey black-and-white film by Allen, which gives mock credit for Gianni Schicchi to such unlikely personalities as Oriana Fellatio and Cesare Ensalada. Then the curtain rises on a greedy family gathered around the deathbed of their wealthy patriarch in his Florentine mansion just as they’re realizing they’ve all been written out of his will.
You can see Allen’s influence in the way director Kathleen Smith Belcher paces the disciplined, comically attuned cast through alternating moments of slapstick and romantic longing. As the mincing, flask-swilling, cigarette-puffing La Ciesca, mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell pouts with a grandly sultry arrogance while revealing a bell-like, silvery tone. Meredith Arwady portrays Zita, who wields her ladle as if it were a knife and remains suspicious when her love-struck nephew, Rinuccio (tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz), enlists Gianni Schicchi (Domingo), the father of his girlfriend, Lauretta (soprano Andriana Chuchman), to help change the will. Domingo is stirring on the amputation-themed ode to Florence, “Addio, Firenze," drawing a standing ovation. Chuchman beguiles in an early scene when Lauretta begs her father for help, and her achingly beautiful duet with the ever-ardent Chacón-Cruz near the end is a momentarily joyful romantic idyll.
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After a longer-than-usual intermission to change the gigantic stage sets, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement when the fantastic circus in Zeffirelli's Pagliacci rolls into town. Director Stefano Trespidi somehow manages to align scores of cast members and other moving parts so that there are always numerous fascinating things going on at once.
“The tears we shed aren’t real,” insists Tonio (redoubtable baritone George Gagnidze), the world-weary clown who introduces the show. But ringmaster Canio (Italian tenor Marco Berti) has become so consumed by jealousy about his wife, Nedda (Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez), he can’t tell the difference between performance and real life when he seeks revenge. Berti is a commanding force, able to wring pathos from rage, while Martínez captivates, her vocals quivering delicately with a birdlike lyricism as Nedda briefly finds solace in the arms of her gallant lover, Silvio (baritone Liam Bonner, who also plays Marco in Gianni Schicchi).
Beyond Bonner, what these two seemingly dissimilar operas have in common — and what makes them particularly interesting to watch back-to-back — is the way they end: with unexpectedly sudden shifts in mood that shake the audience out of a state of romantic bliss.
L.A. Opera at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Sat., Oct. 3, 7 p.m.; $74-$295. (213) 972-8001, www.laopera.org.