Opera doesn’t have to be grand to be great. It can be quite small, actually, and still pack a wallop. So after last spring’s Wagnerian tour-de-force – the complete staging of the seldom-seen Das Liebesverbot – the USC Thornton Opera creative team of stage director Ken Cazan and music director Brent McMunn were keen to try something small.
“We wanted to get back to our simpler productions,” Cazan said. “We could have done a show with a chorus. We just didn’t want to.”
With the pairing of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers – both one-acts – USC Thornton Opera illustrates the adage that good things come in small packages.
Schicchi is a feisty comedy adapted from a throwaway line in Dante’s Inferno. The plot in a nutshell: When the Donati family patriarch leaves everything to a monastery, the greedy relatives look to a clever fixer to posthumously rewrite his will.
Clocking in at just 55 minutes, Schicchi nevertheless “is a big, full-blooded Puccini opera,” McMunn said. “It’s like late in his life, Puccini pulled out everything he’d learned from before and made this compact, visceral comedy with these brilliant orchestrations.” It also boasts “one of the greatest scores ever written,” according to Cazan. “It is a masterpiece of dramaturgy and music together. Puccini was at his absolute peak.”
Schicchi is part of a trio of thematically unrelated Puccini one-acts known as Il Trittico (the triptych). Following their 1918 premiere, they were meant to be performed together – as in the 2008 production directed by Woody Allen for Los Angeles Opera. But nowadays Schicchi, considered the finest of the three, is often billed with works by other composers. Cazan himself previously has paired it with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and he will be reprising Schicchi next summer in Denver for Central City Opera on a triple bill with Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins and Francis Poulenc’s surreal Les Mamelles de Tirésias.
“When you put one-acts together, they’re often really contrasting,” Cazan said.
That certainly describes this week’s pairing at Bing Theatre. The second piece, Heggie’s Three Decembers, is based on Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls, Too), an unpublished work by playwright Terrence McNally. Originally structured in two acts, the chamber opera premiered in Houston in 2007 before travelling to San Francisco and Chicago.
When Cazan began staging a new production for Center City Opera earlier this year, Heggie – whose operas include Moby Dick and Dead Man Walking – reconfigured it as a tight one-act that builds to a climax in 90 minutes. Set over three decades of Christmases, Three Decembers sketches the strained relations between aging Broadway diva Maddy Mitchell and her two adult children, Charlie, who is gay, and Bea, an unhappily married alcoholic. With just three cast members and not much of a story, it’s mostly a character study. Yet “on opening night last summer in Denver,” Cazan recalled, “you could hear people sobbing all over the audience.”
Musically, Three Decembers is deceptively simple. “It’s written to sound natural,” McMunn said. “There are some very accessible harmonies, but the score is very thoroughly composed.”
Transitioning from Schicchi to Three Decembers proved easier than one might expect. Using a single set, Cazan simply updated Puccini’s comedy from the Renaissance to the 1980s, which is the opening decade for Heggie’s piece.
The biggest challenge, according to McMunn, was changing the pit during intermission. Puccini’s score calls for 45 instruments, while Heggie’s makes do with a lean 11 instruments. “We have to move in two grand pianos and percussion, and clear away the rest of the orchestra,” McMunn said.
The musical contrast is extreme, Cazan noted. “Puccini is all lush symphonic sweep, while Heggie is all simplicity and elegance,” he said. “But different as they are, the pieces seemed to come together effortlessly.”
“It’s a phenomenal evening,” Cazan added. “I’m so excited about this double bill.”
USC Thornton Opera will give three performances of Gianni Schicchi (in Italian with English supertitles) and Three Decembers (in English with supertitles), on Wednesday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in Bing Theatre. Seats are free for students, faculty and staff, $12 for senior citizens and alumni, and $18 for the general public. Advance tickets may be purchased for a small fee through the USC Ticket Office at www.usc.edu/tickets or by calling (213) 740-4672.
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