For the past 10 years, Pacific Opera Project aka POP, has been entertaining tens of thousands of people of all ages thru their creative, affordable and in many instances hysterical productions of mostly classical works, in the Los Angeles area. Headed by their iconoclastic artistic director and co-founder Josh Shaw who is quite the renaissance impresario (he designs and builds the sets, translates librettos, directs the productions and so much more), the company which began a decade ago on a shoestring budget has grown exponentially into their current $500,000 funds for the new season, all while racking up rave reviews and legions of faithful fans.
Part of the charm and excitement of a POP opera production revolves around the interpretation and ideas that Shaw brings to each project. For the opening of their 10th season at the historic Thorne Hall at Eagle Rock’s Occidental College, he did not disappoint with the pairing of the mini operas “Gianni Schicchi” by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Giovacchino Forzano (composed in 1917–1918) and “L’enfant et les sortileges” (composed in 1917-1925), by French composer Maurice Ravel to a French libretto by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette who was a famous female author.
Although “Gianni Schicchi” (his only comedy) was originally the last of a trio of short operas by Puccini which included “Il Tabarro” and “Suor Angelica” known together as “Il trittico” and meant to be shown together, during the 1920’s many opera houses began to produce each of them apart as part of a mixed program. The story is based on an incident mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy and it revolves around the death of the wealthy Florence, Italy resident Buoso Donati, who is surrounded by a group of his relatives that are eager to see what part of his will each gets. In this production the timeline is the 1950’s with a simple yet effective set by Shaw and the creative, spot-on costumes by the talented Maggie Green.
After finding the will in a frantic search of the room, they learn that the deceased has left everything to a monastery. Since they cannot fathom each losing a piece of the patrimony, Rinuccio (tenor/Jonathan Mattews) who is a nephew, suggest they seek the guidance of Gianni Schicchi (baritone/E. Scott Levin) who has just moved to the city with his young daughter Lauretta (soprano/Tiffani Ho) who also has become his love interest.
As Schicchi enters the room he is greeted with such disdain by the rest of the family due to his humble background that he decides to do nothing for such arrogant people. In one of the most moving and famous arias in all of opera we hear “O mio babbino caro/Oh, my dear papa” sung exquisitely by Tiffani Ho who has a crystalline, pure, powerful voice as she asks her father to help the family of her love interest.
In the multiple performances I have been lucky to see baritone E. Scott Levin at POP, he has consistently delivered outstanding vocal and character performances and this is one of his best. Possessing an outstanding vocal instrument and impeccable timing, he owns the stage in every scene that his character inhabits with great physical comedic detail and singing nuance.
After agreeing to help, Schicchi devices a plan to illegally change the will which requires him to impersonate the late Donati in front of his doctor Spinelloccio (tenor/William Grundler), a notary public Amantio (bass/Peter Barber) and a deaf and blind witnesses. At the end of the opera he manages to pull a fast one on all those who belittled him.
The remainder of the talented cast included: contralto/Sharmay Musacchio (cousin Zita), baritone/Joel Balzun (brother-in-law Betto), baritone/Tom Sitzler with his thunderous voice (cousin Simone), soprano/Sonja Krenek (Nella, Gherardo’s wife), baritone/Jared Daniel Jones (Simone’s son), mezzo-soprano/Danielle Marcelle Bond (Marco’s wife Ciesca), tenor/Robert Norman (nephew), soprano/Audrey Yoder (Pinellino the cobbler) and mezzo-soprano/Sarabeth Belon (Guccio the dyer).
After a short intermission came Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortileges”, one of his lesser performed operas which is a cautionary tale aimed at children who misbehave. To tie together these two works, Shaw decided that it would be interesting to use the minor character of Gherardino (mezzo-soprano/Kimberly Sogioka) who is the young son of Gherardo from “Gianni Schicchi” as the main character of L’Enfant/The Child and to transition the characters of the Buoso Donati family to the whimsical and surrealistic world of this work.
After a scolding by his mother (soprano/Sonja Krenek) for not doing his homework L’Enfant/Gherardino throws a temper tantrum while he breaks things and harms nearby animals. To his surprise the inanimate objects and the animals return as fantastical creatures that bear a high resemblance to his Donati family members. The full cast returns to inhabit these characters with the imaginative costumes by Maggie Green and the inventive and modern sounding score by Ravel. Sogioka delivers a delightful portrayal of the brat with some outstanding singing and acting.
Heading the vibrant and substantial orchestra was conductor Josh Horsch who managed to produce a full but delicate sound out of his talented musicians from the right side of the stage slightly out of sight. By the looks and sound of this production, Pacific Opera Project continues to “live long and prosper” as the character Spock would say from POP’s Star Trek inspired production of Mozart’s opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio” which was shown to great acclaim in Los Angeles at El Portal Theatre in 2015 and The Ford Amphitheater in 2016.