Opera genius Giacomo Puccini pulled together totally different musical styles to suit different emotions based on disparate plots; the resulting performance by Piedmont Opera of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi was an emotionally entertaining evening that ended in the highest of spirits!

After some 18 months of deprivation, the public is gradually but tentatively opening its arms and ears to live and in-person attendance at concerts, theater and sporting events all while heeding (mostly) warnings and protocols of safe practices. A nearly full hall attended the formal reopening of the Stevens Center of the University of NC’s School of the Arts to grand opera.

The Piedmont Opera, under the enlightened musical direction of James Allbritten and the inspired stage direction of Steven LaCosse, presented two thirds of the operatic triptych Puccini composed starting in 1913 and which premiered on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1918. (The first of the three one-act operas, Il Tabarro (The Cloak), is a dark melodrama ending in a double murder; it is less frequently presented than the two operas currently staged by the Piedmont Opera.) The remaining two operas run the gamut from the piercingly tragic death of a child and his mother’s wish to atone for his abandonment (Suor Angelica) to the improbable farce (Gianni Schicchi) based on the rewriting of a dead man’s will to the advantage of his survivors – with a comic twist – inspired by a passage of literary genius originally penned by Dante (1265-1321).

Suor Angelica takes place entirely within the confines of a cloister and the costumes are traditional nuns’ black habits, with cowl, headpiece and long robe. Discipline prevails and is enforced. Only the peccadilloes of the novitiates (wearing white headpieces) break the strict rules.

Sister Angelica, the title role, is magnificently sung by Marsha Thompson, a soprano with a warm beautiful tone throughout her range. Her impassioned plea for news, any news about her son from her aunt, the Princess, was chilling – and her mourning for the fate of her child who had died, “Senza mamma” (“Without mother”) was so emotional as to leave no eye dry in the hall.

Her protagonist, Janine Hawley, plays the part of La Zia Principessa (The Aunt-Princess), the guardian of Angelica and her unseen younger sister. This chilling role was admirably sung, with haughty distain by Hawley – who also sang and acted superbly the snobbish Cousin Zita in Gianni Schicchi – what a great mastery of Italian hand gestures!

It is the pending marriage of this younger sister that ignites the whole plot as the Aunt requires Angelica to sign over her worldly possessions to her sister. Angelica at first refuses, citing her son as the reason, but then the stern Aunt discloses that his death occured two years ago. Eventually Angelica signs the release and the Aunt leaves Angelica who plans her own demise, which she carries out, using her knowledge of botany to know where the poisons are “stored in the little breasts of flowers.”

Among the many other lovely voices in this all female cast, I was particularly impressed by Fletcher Fellow Margaret Ann Zentner, who has a spectacular soprano voice that brightened the role of Suor Genovieffa, the common sense nun who seemed to be Angelica’s confident.

Gianni Schicchi (pronounced “Johnny Ski-ki”) is a world apart from the first opera in almost every way. It is fast-paced, full of people interrupting each other, others bursting in from outside – a comic doctor with a Bolognaise accent, a Notary with two witnesses, nine members of the extended Florentine “Donati family”, the town handyman (Schicchi, himself!) and his simple-minded daughter, Lauretta, who has her eyes set on Rinuccio, the most eligible of the Buoso family, and finally – a corpse, Buoso Donati, the wealthiest of the family and proud proprietor of “the best mule in Florence, his own house and the mills in Signa!”

Schicchi, sung by baritone Malcolm MacKenzie would have had nothing to do with the final will and testament of a corpse, but the imploring request of his daughter, Lauretta, (“O mio babbino caro” – “Oh my dear Daddy”) turned his Italian heart around – as would almost any song sung by Jodi Burns, our Lauretta. Hers is a golden pure voice with beauty in all ranges and impeccable intonation. Her lover, Rinuccio, sung by tenor Alex Richardson, was equally convincing.

The solution to the inheritance problem, proposed by Gianni Schicchi, was to revoke the original will (which gave all the riches to the Church) and replace it with a new will dictated to the Notary by Schicchi impersonating the dead Buoso. Among the brilliant cast, two others merit special attention – Donald Hartmann who played Simone, the eldest of the Donati family and former mayor and fomenter of ideas – great actor and outstanding bass voice; and Connor May Kelly, playing the “pants role” of 8-year-old Gherardino, impetuous and impulsive!

The fast-flow staccato nature of both story and music in Gianni Schicchi create special problems in staging, which Steven LaCosse handled adroitly, keeping the audience in stitches. The Winston-Salem Symphony sounded excellent in the hands of Maestro Allbritten, reminding me what a gifted orchestrator Puccini was. Only at the beginning of Suor Angelica did I wish the bells were softer so that the chorus of nuns might be better heard.

The opera will be repeated on Sunday afternoon, October 17 and Tuesday evening, October 19. See sidebar for details.