Listen up, because this will probably happen to you some day. You’re sitting around the family manse with your obnoxious relatives, waiting for your super-rich uncle to shuffle off this mortal coil. Everybody’s boo-hooing in the next room, and will continue to do so until the old man kicks. At last the great moment arrives, and you and everyone you’re related to is rich! – until they find the will, and discover that Unc has left every last florin to the stinkin’ holy monks! What are you going to do?
Wait! – before you call up those guys who represented Anna Nicole Smith in her struggle to obtain her late husband’s estate (I know they’re on speed-dial), consider hiring a local farmer to impersonate your uncle and swear out a new will! Yeah! That’s what you’ll do! Because you’re a member of the rapacious Bellini family, and this is – Gianni Schicchi.
In 1918, Giacomo Puccini and librettist Giovacchino Forzano – anticipating Tom Stoppard by roughly fifty years – composed an opera out of the hypothesized life story of a very minor character in a great classic. The classic in this instance was Dante’s Inferno, and the allusion came from Canto XXX: “He of Arezzo (i.e. Virgil), who stood trembling by/ Said to me: ‘That mad soul is Gianni Schicchi/ Who mangles others in his frenzied rage.’…(who) ‘once dared/ That he might gain the fairest of the stud/ To counterfeit the person of Donati/ Making a will in proper legal form.’” (Lawrence Grant White translation).
In this clever adaptation of Forzano’s text by local playwright John Morogiello, currently being given production by the Georgetown Theatre Company, Virgil (Carl Brandt Long) tells the rest of the story to Dante (Kenny Littlejohn). Rich Buoso Donati is on his deathbed, and his relatives – his fabulously drunk old cousin Betto (Terence Aselford), his formidable sister Zita (Laura J. Scott), his nerd nephew Gherado (Jim Gange), Gherado’s sluttish wife Nella (Suzie Mellring) and her hotheaded lover Marco (Scott Courlander), who is also Gherado’s cousin, all shed hypocritical tears as they anticipate the will-reading which will follow their uncle’s death. Only Buoso’s nephew Rinuccio (T.D.Smith) shows anything approaching proper respect, and it falls on him to eventually find Buoso’s will – which leaves everything to an order of monks. Buoso, it seems, has given his dreadful family cause for real tears – until Rinuccio hits on the genius idea of calling in Gianni Schicchi (Morogiello), generally thought to be the cleverest man in Florence. As it turns out, Rinuccio has a better and more specific reason for reversing his dead uncle’s wishes than do most of his relatives: he wants to use his share to marry Schicchi’s beautiful daughter Lauretta (Rachel Meloan).
Summoned by the great Bellini family, Schicchi immediately recognizes them as all twisted up in greed, arrogance and spleen (they ask for his help while at the same time deride him for being a farmer) and outspokenly declines. But when he realizes that Rinuccio, who he likes, needs the money to marry Lauretta, and that Rinuccio is moreover Lauretta’s heart’s content, he agrees to impersonate the dead man while they put Buoso’s rapidly-decaying body somewhere. Schicchi, as Buoso, will feign recovery sufficiently to satisfy the addlepated doctor (Jonathan Lee Taylor), dictate a new will to the dimwitted notary (Taylor) and then breathe his mortal last.
This is, of course, a farce – of the cheerfully vulgar variety – in which the principal laughs come from the unprincipled efforts of the Bellini family to persuade Schicchi to slant the will he dictates in their favor. Director Catherine Aselford is dealing with a green cast here – only Gange and Terrence Aselford (who is absolutely superb as the disheveled Betto) have extensive professional experience – and as a result this production lacks the slam-bang timing necessary to bring off high-quality farce. When it is at its best, farce is like an out-of-control ride on a skateboard down a steep ramp, in which you eventually slam into a wall which is made up, inexplicably, of custard cream pies. Gianni Schicchi is more like a pleasant and amusing walk through some sort of exotic zoo.
While some of the supporting actors need considerably more work before they do full justice to their characters, Morogiello gives satisfaction in the title role. As he plays it, Schicchi comes off as the neighborhood wise guy, cool, decisive, and a little contemptuous of his surroundings – which, back at the tail-end of the thirteenth century, he may well have been. As the young couple, Smith and Meloan are genuinely appealing; I bought that they were in love, and also that they were honorable people, and full of integrity. At the end of the play, Meloan, who has a fantastic voice, sings the most famous aria from the opera – the beautiful O mio babbino caro – and it imbues the stage with a patina of joy and hope. Even Dante might have smiled.
Adapted by John Morogiello from the opera by Giacomo Puccini and Giovacchino Forzano
Directed by Catherine Aselford
Produced by J.T. Burian Theatricals and the Georgetown Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor