Friday, October 2, 2009

Comedy is Harder than Tragedy

SF Opera Examiner Cindy Warner has concluded her one-by-one examination of the three parts of Giacomo Puccini's Il Trittico with a piece on "Gianni Schicchi;" so it seems only fair that I offer a concluding reflection on her reflections. This time my personal free association invokes the memory of a lecture that I once heard Martha Graham give at the American Dance Festival, back when it was still being hosted by Connecticut College for Women. Among the things she discussed was why she had done so little comedy. (Unless I am mistaken, I saw only one of her dances that could be called comic. That was "Acrobats of God;" and I was surprised at how self-mocking it was.) Her point was that comedy is much harder than tragedy, but you do not appreciate that difficulty until you actually try to do it.

Graham was clearly reflecting on her own work, but she could just as well have been lecturing us about Puccini. He could understand the value of comic relief in his full-length operas; but he never seems to have taken on an effort to conceive a comedy longer than a single act. Still, that one-act achievement is a doozy; particularly when he tips his hand in the epilogue to let us know that this whole affair was nothing but a loopy reflection on an episode from Dante's Inferno.

In the midst of all this madness, he also unleashes one of the great warhorses of the soprano repertoire, "O mio babbino caro;" and this was where Patrice Racette showed her true mettle as a performer. Taken out of context, this aria tends to be delivered as yet another overflowing pot of sentimentality; but, in the context of the narrative of this opera, it is quite another beast. Lauretta is neither more nor less than Schicchi's spoiled brat of a daughter, determined to get whatever she wants by any means necessary. In James Robinson's staging, she starts with cajolery, for which Puccini's musical setting is as perfect as one can get. Unfortunately, Schicchi is immune to such persuasion; so, in the last gasp of her aria, Racette lets loose with a fit a bawling, the likes of which would have been more appropriate in a staged version of Edward Gorey's "The Beastly Baby." For those unfamiliar with this masterful conjunction of text and image, here are some of Gorey's words:

It was capable of making only two sorts of noises, both of them nasty.

The first was a choked gurgling, reminiscent of faulty drains. It made this noise when it had succeeded in doing something particularly atrocious.

The second was a thin shriek suggestive of fingernails on blackboards. It made this noise when it had been prevented from doing something particularly atrocious.

My guess is that Robinson and Racette were going for the second of these noises but ended up modulating it with some of the effect of the first. (Gorey was more a balletomane than an opera-goer; but I suspect Racette's performance would have delighted him.)

No, comedy is not easy. I cannot imagine it being any easier after having already put out high-octane melodrama in two other operas. This Trittico was Racette's triumph in the face of a challenging opportunity that really does not present itself in any other operatic setting.

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