By Sarah Bennett
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It is no longer enough to be merely huge at the opera: to wander the stage, potbelly a-sway, one's goatee slick with perspiration while one gesticulates wildly at the high notes. Not even at UCI, where the days of men sausage-packed into their clothes and women trilling high notes while fanning their faces are numbered. Youngsters in Robin Buck's vocal arts program undergo rigorous movement training, in order that they may inject grace into opera. "The days of having a good voice and being able to stand and gesture are over," he says.
The company's latest performance of Gianni Schicchi (pronounced ski-key), the one and only comedy by Giacomo Puccini, is its chance to put those acting chops to good use: "The difference between a Puccini drama and a Puccini comedy is, in a Puccini comedy someone dies at the beginning of the opera," Buck jokes.
This one-hour work from Puccini's Il Trittico (a collection of three operas) was created from a brief passage in Dante Alighieri's anti-papal Commedia (The Divine Comedy). The connection between the two works is slight at best; there are only a few lines in Canto 30 about a scoundrel who cheats a couple out of a substantial inheritance, but Puccini ran with it. In his version, after Buoso Donati kicks it, his family is appalled to learn that all the cash has gone to the neighboring monastery and suddenly feels its first stirrings of genuine remorse. Gianni Schicchi appears and offers to dress up as the dead man and dictate a new inheritance to the lawyers. A scoundrel to the end, after accepting several bribes from family members, he wills the mills and the villa to himself. All is not lost; at the opera's end, Schicchi's daughter Lauretta finally can marry her lover Rinuccio (a member of the slighted family) since she now has a decent dowry.
To prepare, the UCI undergrads took a rigorous 10-week course on movement for singers. Lauren Havarian, a junior in the vocal arts program, explains: "This year, we did a lot of clowning, and there are rules to clowning. You put on a red nose, you can't talk, you can't shake your head no and you can't lose eye contact with the audience." Students were urged to think about that exercise as they channeled the bribable Schicchi and Donati's moneygrubbing relatives. "Emotions changed instantly," Havarian says. "As singers, we are very focused on being technical, and [in] the Puccini operas you also have to have fun."
Clowning might be the perfect antidote to the most famous aria in the opera. In "Oh Mio Babbino Caro," Lauretta begs her father to approve her marriage to the tenor Rinuccio. She threatens to throw herself in the Arno should he nix the arrangement. That sentiment is such a nice throwback to all the other dramatic suicides envisioned by Puccini's keen mind: the Tosca suicide (jumping off a building); the Madame Butterfly one (slit throat).
What's really funny is that in Puccini's one comedy, he does farce as well as Falstaff—and still manages to be self-referential.