BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Puccini meets Edward Albee in a co-production by St. Petersburg Opera and American Stage. Gianni Schicchi, Puccini's only comic opera, is being performed on the set of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Albee play that just closed at the theater.
"It's literally the same set,'' said Todd Olson, producing artistic director at American Stage, who is directing the opera. "Scott Cooper designed the Virginia Woolf set and knew it would double as the Schicchi set."
The theater and opera companies decided to join forces about a year ago, when Olson was directing Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte for the opera company at the Palladium Theater. The trick was to find an opera that would fit a similar interior setting as the play.
"An updated Schicchi works perfectly on that set,'' said Mark Sforzini, artistic director of St. Petersburg Opera. "It has everything that we need."
The co-production is also relatively economical. "If either of our groups had put this on individually, the price tag would have been much more expensive," said Sforzini, putting the budget at $28,500. "We're sharing everything. An equal split of the expenses and an equal split of ticket revenues."
Gianni Schicchi — or "Johnny Schicchi,'' as this production puts the Italian title — is a one-act, hourlong opera, written to be performed as one-third of Il Trittico, Puccini's collection of brief operas that also includes Suor Angelica and Il Tabarro. Set in 13th century Florence, it is basically a boulevard farce about the family maneuvers that ensue after the death of a rich old gentleman named Buoso Donati.
"It's still Florence,'' Olson said. "We're setting it in the present. I thought if we could get to the Italian of right now — Jersey Shore, The Sopranos — it could be a lot of fun."
"It's still the same money-grubbing family of vultures upset about the way the will was written and trying to take legal action to change it to their favor,'' Sforzini said.
"It's all very universal," Olson added.
Gianni Schicchi will be sung in English by a cast of 13, with a four-piece orchestra of violin, cello, keyboards and bassoon. Sforzini will play bassoon and conduct. Principal roles include Schicchi (Richard Cassell), Lauretta (Phoenix Gayles) and Rinuccio (Adam Hall). Lauretta has one of Puccini's most beloved arias, O mio babbino caro.
Olson and Sforzini think there is a lot to be said for staging the Puccini opera in the 182-seat venue. "It's nice to hear so much of it so clearly,'' said Olson, who knows the set intimately, having also directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on it. "I think you feel more a part of it. You're never more than six rows away."
"I think you appreciate the artistry more,'' Sforzini said. "You hear the voices, but you also hear the singers' shaping and dynamics and what they do with a phrase."
The two are already considering another collaboration next season, if they can come up with an opera that could share a set with Jonathan Logan's play about painter Mark Rothko, Red. How about a pocket production of Tosca?
St. Petersburg Opera is treating Gianni Schicchi as the kickoff of its Puccini Festival, which includes an "Opera Idol" performance by local singers and a gala fundraiser called "Puccini in Paradise." The festival leads up to June 10-14 performances of Madama Butterfly, also to be conducted by Sforzini with Olson directing, at the Palladium. Information: stpeteopera.org.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.