This summer I’ve been watching as many Italian comedies from the Fifties and Sixties as I can get my hands on. Maybe the immediacy has softened with age, and what originally was shocking bluntness has become charming nostalgia—but the wit remains pointed. And the targets—greed, vanity, self-importance—remain among us.
And so Woody Allen’s recasting of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi in an early Sixties farce by De Sica seems perfectly natural. It was terrific when first presented seven years ago, and it seems even funnier now.
The best thing about it is that Allen gets out of Puccini’s way, and lets him—his music—get the best laughs. The reading of the will, for instance. And consider the opera’s most famous aria, “O Mio Babbino Caro,” which in isolation seems a pretty confection. Allen correctly realized that, for all it’s sweetness, it’s the punchline of a joke. Lauretta’s father, Gianni, has just been ranting about how nothing, ever, ever will induce him to help the family of her fiancé. Lauretta’s response is so extraordinarily grand that it makes the audience gasp and laugh.
The joke was also perfectly set up. Plácido Domingo obviously had a ball playing the crooked Gianni.
The Pagliacci production, originally designed by Franco Zeffirelli, was also set in a post-WWII Italian movie setting, but more a tragedy alla neorealismo than commedia all’Italiana.
Zeffirelli and director Stefano Trespidi approached their task with extraordinary imagination and thoroughness. The set and props recreated an urban, working-class neighborhood in vivid detail, down to the flicker of a TV’s glow through the window of an upper story apartment. Besides the principle singers, the stage was populated by a vast chorus, plus 11 circus performers and 57 supernumeraries—9 of them children. Every one of these performers was given a distinct look, distinct gestures and a little story to enact in mime. It was beautifully choreographed; it was impossible not to be impressed.
But it was also impossible not to be, at times, distracted from the drama. I felt sorry for Ana María Martínez struggling to make Nedda’s quieter songs perceptible above the hubbub. Last year’s concert performance at the Bowl presented no such obstacles to Julianna Di Giacomo, whose Nedda was instantly compelling.