Sunday, May 20, 2012

Two Chamber Operas, Part I: Gianni Schicchi--Scene and Lighting Design

Gianni Schicchi thumbnail sketch
Gianni Schicchi, a one act comic opera by Giacomo Puccini was produced Spring Semester, 2009 in the Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Because the floor in the Snow Drama Theatre was being re-decked, the Snow Black Box Theatre saw heavier use than other years.  We were scheduled to do an opera during that time period, but the proscenium house where we normally do them was closed due to renovations.  I suggested we do a couple of Baroque chamber operas in the Snow Black Box Theatre.  One of my colleagues in the music department, Robert Teuller is an expert in baroque music and has acquired a large collection of period baroque instruments for the university.  I thought it would be a good time to put them to use.

Jon Linford and Richard Clifford decided to produce Gianni Schicchi as the first bill and Dido and Aeneas for the second bill.  Gianni Schicci is a 20th century opera and Dido and Aeneas is the first opera ever written in the English language.  It is a Baroque opera written in 1688 by Henry Purcell.

We decided to use two baby grand pianos for accompaniment for Gianni Schicchi and the Baroque Ensemble with period instruments for the accompaniment of Dido and Aeneas.  The baby grands would be played on the deck while the Baroque Ensemble would assemble on the catwalk.  Jon and Robert were very enthusiastic about this, claiming that it was a very Baroque thing to do.

Gianni Schicchi is set entirely indoors and Dido and Aeneas is set out of doors.  The challenge here was to change the set from a 20th century Itallian bedroom to the courtyard of a Carthaginian palace set in ancient times and do it all in ten minutes.

The time is 1299 and Buoso Donati lies dead in his bed.  His relatives have gathered to 'mourn' his passing but what they really want is to know the disposition of his will.  Rumor has it that he has left everything to a monastery and the family tears the house apart looking for the will.  When it is finally found, Rinuccio withholds it for a moment, and asks if he would be allowed to marry Lauretta, the daughter of the lawyer, Gianni Schicchi.

Poor Buoso
Zita says he can marry whomever he pleases so long as Buoso left them alot of money.  The family is most concerned to know who will receive the house, the mills and especially the mule.  When the will is read, their worst fears come true and they find that Buoso has indeed left everything to the Brothers at the Monastery.  Rinuccio suggests that Gianni Schicchi would know what to do but he is repudiated.  Schicchi and Lauretta soon arrive and he figures out what has happened.  When Zita insults him, he decides he will not help the family.  Others entreat and finally Lauretta sings the most famous aria from this opera, O Mio Babbino Caro.  Schicchi cannot say no to his daughter and decides to assist the family.

O Mio Babbino Caro
Schicchi looks over the will and realizes that only those present know Buoso is dead.  He reminds the family of the penalty for falsifying a will.  According to local law a person who falsifys a will is subject to the loss of a hand and banishment forever.  Maestro Spinelloccio, the nearsighted doctor arrives suddenly and Schicci impersonates Buoso, assuring him that he is really alive.

Maestro Spinelloccio, the doctor
Schicchi hatches a plan whereby he will impersonate Buoso and dictate another will.  They call the notary and Schicchi changes into Buoso's clothing.  As he changes, each of the family members seek him out privately and bribe him to give them the better parts of the estate.  Schicchi assures them all they will receive what is coming to them and finally the notary appears.

Schicchi as Buoso
The dictating of the new will goes well for the family at first, each receiving some of the minor things they asked for.  When it comes to the major parts of the estate, the house, the mills at Signa and the mule, he wills them to, "my devoted friend, Gianni Schicchi."  The family is powerless to stop him because they know the penalties for falsifying a will.  When the notary leaves, Schicci throws the family out as they begin to loot the place.

This leaves Lauretta who is now wealthy free to marry Rinuccio.  Dante condemned Schicchi to hell for his trick but asks the audience to pardon him because he did it for the love of his daughter.

Obviously, from the pictures we did not set this play in 1299.  The directors, Jon Linford and Richard Clifford decided they wanted to set this play in the 1950's and Buoso would be a deceased Mafioso.  The relatives would all be to some degree involved in the family business.  The 'mills at Signa' they decided were a code for illegal activity and the 'mule' referred to a Ferrari.

As I mentioned earlier, the real challenge for this design was the fact that it had to be changed over completely from a 20th century interior to an ancient exterior courtyard in ten minutes.  I will discuss the changes in more detail in part two.

Richard suggested a raked (angled) stage and I mentioned that I would like to force the perspective.  I designed a deck that was trapezoid in shape with the small end higher than the large end.  Requirements for the show, or at least our production of it were a bed, other furniture, French doors to the veranda and other entrances for the ease of entrances and exits.

We decided that doors and windows were important, but walls were not.  This would aid tremendously in our scene change but that was not the main reason we did it.  We really wanted to see Gianni Schicchi and Lauretta enter, and we also wanted to see Rinuccio and Lauretta on the veranda.

I wanted to use a cyclorama as a lighting device for this production.  We built a balustrade at the back of the upstage platform to separate it from the cyc. 

Above the stage, I designed a muslin covered, steel ribbed oval dome from which hung a chandelier.  This element was used as an architectural element in Gianni Schicchi and was lit as a sky in Dido and Aeneas.

I drew a thumbnail sketch of the set idea and presented it in an early design meeting to Richard and Jon.  That sketch appears at the top of this post.  The set didn't change much from that original drawing.

The set for Gianni Schicchi
The floor was laid out in a grey and white marble checkerboard pattern in forced perspective with a marble compass in the center medallion.  Grey marble diamond shapes formed a border.

I designed a half tester bed for Buoso.  I designed it around mouldings and ornament we already had.  The verticals pieces were made from old turned porch posts and were decorated with turned corner moulding.  We had several wooden finials from a previous show that we placed in several places throughout the bed.  Finally we hung sheer lace curtains from the half tester.

The half terster bed

The hardest part of the execution of this design was stabilizing the free standing French Doors.  In the end, we had to cable them off to the catwalk railings which ultimately helped them to be solid, even when opened and closed.

The lighting for this show was fairly straightforward.  I had the chandelier and three table lamps on the set for motivational lighting, then the cyc became an important element and I used it to amplify the mood of each scene.  I also used follow spots for the arias and duets.  Otherwise it was basic area lighting for scenes and recititive.

This was a delightful production of an equally delightful comic opera.  It was fun to perform an opera in a smaller flexible seating venue.  The audience was very gracious.  I'm glad we did it.

The 'mule'

Production Details
Directed by Richard Clifford
Musical Direction by Jon Linford
Orchestral Direction by Robert Teuller
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Lighitng Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall

Part II:  Dido and Aeneas coming soon

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