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Sequel writer: Ching.

A Winning Pair

By B.A. Nilsson

Gianni Schicchi and Buoso’s Ghost

Lake George Opera, Spa Little Theater, July 12

Giacomo Puccini wrote his one-act opera Gianni Schicchi as part of a seemingly endless trio of one-acts titled Il Trittico, with the other two as serious as this one is funny. And Gianni Schicchi is very funny, taking its idea from a fleeting reference in Dante’s Divine Comedy and expanding it into a picture of familial greed and jealousy in 13th-century Florence.

As a companion piece, Michael Ching’s Buoso’s Ghost uses the same setting and principal characters and picks up the action just after the Schicchi curtain falls. It’s a charming conceit, and the work is a charming trifle. It’s hard to top Puccini, and Ching, a well-regarded composer who also is the artistic and general director at Opera Memphis, doesn’t try. Instead, he peppers the work with allusions to its predecessor, spins the mad plot a few turns forward, and finishes on a note of delightful irreverence.

There’s no killer soprano aria; in fact, Ching sends the soprano and tenor leads offstage at the start of his piece, right after they sing a tuneful duet about their (what else) undying love for one another. Buoso’s Ghost is really a showpiece for the character of Gianni Schicchi, and why not? The role is so delightful that it always allows the bass-baritone to steal the show.

Robert Orth brims in the part with crafty joie de vivre, easily able to right any wrongs provided his own wishes are fulfilled. There’s so much room to go over the top with this piece that Orth is to be congratulated for his comparative restraint. Sure, he succumbs to occasional shtick, but it works in the context of Nelson Sheeley’s traditional but animated direction.

As befits Gianni Schicchi, it’s presentational and played for laughs. Buoso’s Ghost follows in that tradition, and benefits from it.

We have a scheming family, intent on winning an inheritance. As the matriarchal Zita, Kathryn Cowdrick leads the way in presenting whatever face might work at the moment: angry, scheming, entreating, dismayed. Christopher Temporelli brings an impressive bass voice to the role of Betto even while wearing the world’s worst beard.

Gianni Schicchi features one of the world’s all-time killer soprano arias, it’s own “to be or not to be” moment as Lauretta (Khori Dastoor) implores Schicchi, her father, to let her marry the tenor she adores. Foreshadowed in the orchestra in the moments before it bursts forth, “O mio babbino caro” works as a dramatic moment in spite of its familiarity, and Dastoor gave it her all, gorgeously shaping the arresting moment.

It’s also a character moment. Lauretta is so ardent that it’s an amusing contrast to the others, even her almost-as-ardent boyfriend, Rinuccio, sung by Colin Ainsworth.

On the whole, there was an impressive consistency to the entire cast, which included David Neal and Curt Olds, along with apprentice artists Emily Newton and Gregory Zavracky. Apprentice artist Brian Shircliffe brought the appropriate gravitas to his dual role as the notary in Schicchi and the magistrate in Ghost, and there was a charming cameo in the first opera by young Lucy Ching. And let’s not forget the late Buoso himself, Patrick Hussey, who achieved impressive stillness and withstood much abuse.

As for Buoso’s Ghost, I longed for a killer aria along the lines of Lauretta’s, but Puccini raised the bar awfully high. Ching’s compositional voice is decidedly contemporary, but he’s less afraid of melody than many and worked in some excellent, non-Puccinian tunes. Orchestral textures were well crafted and well suited to the voices, and the plotting held at least as many surprises as in Schicchi.

We had the bonus of having Ching on hand to conduct the excellent orchestra, placed above and upstage of the action. But that also allowed the character of Schicchi, once the action in Buoso’s Ghost had been resolved, to berate the poor composer for his impudence in writing a sequel, a very funny tag to an extremely enjoyable performance.

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