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Conservatory Opera tackles Puccini

Sonia Emmons

March 1, 2 and 4, singing nuns and money-grubbing relatives make their way to Stansbury Theatre for the Lawrence Conservatory’s productions of Giacomo Puccini’s one-act operas “Suor Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi.”
“Suor Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi” represent two-thirds of Puccini’s operatic triptych “Il Trittico.” “Il Tabarro,” the third part, is performed less frequently than its counterparts.
“Gianni Schicchi” will be performed in an English translation, while “Suor Angelica” will be performed in Italian with English supertitles projected above the stage. This marks the first time in Lawrence history that an entire opera will be sung in its original language.
While supertitles are common in professional opera companies, they are a rarity on college campuses. The supertitles for “Gianni Schicchi” were written by Associate Professor of Music Bonnie Koestner, an operatic vocal coach who wore multiple hats for the preparation of the operas.
Koestner had clear reasons for performing one opera in Italian and the other in English. “‘Suor Angelica’ is so much better in Italian,” said Koestner, while “comedies like ‘Gianni Schicchi’ are best performed in the native language, so that the audience can react immediately to the humor.”
As a vocal coach, Koestner helped the singers with issues of language, musicality and theatricality in preparing their roles.
She is pleased with the singers in “Angelica,” who have “conquered a new language and are thinking as much as possible in Italian.”
Freshman Maura Cook, who plays Suor Dolcina, explained the importance of singing and thinking in the same language.
“You really need to understand the words to appreciate them,” Cook said. “Then you can coordinate your facial expressions and other stylistic aspects to convey meaning to the audience.”
The dramatic tragedy “Suor Angelica” tells the story of Sister Angelica, a fragile young nun who resides in a convent to hide the scandal of her child born out of wedlock.
At the time of its premier in 1918, “Angelica” was the first opera ever written to be composed of an all-female cast, and Puccini believed it was the best segment of “Il Trittico.”
“Gianni Schicchi” is a comic opera that chronicles the cunning impersonations of Gianni Schicchi, who is employed by the greedy relatives of a recently deceased man to change the contents of his will.
It is the most popular of Puccini’s three one-acts and has been hailed as a comedic masterpiece since its premier.
According to Timothy X. Troy, Associate Professor of Theatre Arts and stage director for the operas, “Angelica” is “soaring and emotional,” while “Schicchi” is “more mental, vertical, and quick-paced.”
While preserving librettist Giovacchino Forzano’s masterful dialogue, Troy has set his “Schicchi” in Florence, N.J. in 1979, rather than 14th-century Florence, Italy.
This manipulation of the “mise en scŠne” should enhance the opera’s joke factor by adding “more layers of visual metaphor.”
Furthermore, Troy maintained, “Like all comedies, ‘Schicchi’ is an examination of our social lives.”
Sophomore Garth Neustadter, who plays Gianni Schicchi, connected its challenging music to the opera’s trickster plot.
“The characters, in attempting to cover up a death, must be constantly thinking on their toes,” Neustadter said.
“This is embodied by fast-paced music that jumps from section to section.”
Koestner also explained that both operas are ensemble operas, containing one or two major roles and many minor roles. In a student opera production, this means more roles to fill and consequently more students onstage.
As is often the case, many roles are double cast to give experience to a greater number of students. One of these students is Derrell Acon, who plays the role of Betto in “Schicchi.”
Acon explained that both in choir and in opera there exists a mutual dependence on the other singers. However, in an opera, “each role is critical in bringing the show together,” said the freshman.
Cami Bowers and Julie Silver play Suor Angelica, and Aram Monisoff and Garth Neustadter share the role of Schicchi.
Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday, and both operas are one hour in length.