By Kenneth Shaw
I have had a long relationship with both operas in tonight's production, having been involved with them on both sides of the footlights. At first glance, they may seem an odd combination for a double bill, but when one looks just under the surface, we first learn that both stories are, to some extent, allegorical. The Purcell is based upon Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid, and the Puccini text comes directly from an incident mentioned in Dante's Divine Comedy. Musically, the two are certainly of vastly different styles, but both are masterful in their depiction of human experience and emotion. Dramatically, therefore, we easily see how human passions burn — whether in the desire for each other or for material things, for love or for duty. And in both, we see how those passions clash, with utterly different outcomes.
I have a special affinity for Dido and Aeneas for many reasons, but I confess to having always struggled with an aspect of the opera that, for me, is unexplained. In past productions, I have simply ignored the nagging question of just who this Sorceress is and why she and the Witches with her hate Dido so much. Though some purists will take issue with me, I have chosen to make a case for this relationship by inventing a reason for that hatred. Built from the legend that Dido fled her murderous brother in Lebanon and landed on the Northern coast of Africa, the Berber chieftain who controlled the region welcomed her and told her she could have as much land as an ox hide would cover. Dido cut a single ox hide into thin strips and laid them end-to-end around a hill, successfully claiming it for her people. I have set forth a premise that Dido has invited the Berber leadership (known in the opera as Sorceress and Witches) into her court at a high level, but not that of leadership. I proffer that their resentment has given birth to a plot to take down Dido in subtle ways — drugging her with ‘medicinal’ droughts and conjuring ancient methods of magic and the supernatural which ultimately, and quite successfully drive the story to its tragic end. Whether one accepts my premise or not, there is nonetheless much to appreciate and enjoy with this work — Purcell's only fully sung opera.
Gianni Schicchi, which Puccini composed as the third in his trilogy of one act operas (with Suor Angelica and Il Tabarro) is his only true comedy, portraying human nature at its most selfish. Yet because we can easily recognize in all the characters some aspect of ourselves that most of us would never dare to express, we can go along with the craziness and laugh about it.
These aspects of the human experience seem to share a commonality across cultures and generations, so we've seen productions set in various historical time periods, with myriad character delineations, the core characteristics of which are found in commedia dell'arte. Tonight's production is set in 1953, with costumes designed with a nod to the Avant Garde of the period, largely for the purpose of exaggerating the nature of each character. And we have intended to push the entire design toward that of black and white TV, giving hints of color only to the characters who bring depth and empathy to the story — Rinuccio, Lauretta, and the man himself: the sly, crafty hero of our story Gianni Schicchi.