ITHACA, N.Y. -- Necessity is the mother of invention, as Opera Ithaca proves brilliantly with its streaming film production of the one-act comedy opera “Gianni Schicchi.” Theaters everywhere have been responding imaginatively to COVID-closed stages, but this effort reaches a new high. Fittingly enough, Giacomo Puccini’s now-celebrated opera premiered at the Met during the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic.
In revising its seventh season, Opera Ithaca collaborated locally with PhotoSynthesis Productions to create the show and with Cinemapolis to virtually screen it. What viewers see is intimate comedy via a professional film –– the excellent photography, lighting, sound, editing, costumes, settings, and even color saturation are enormously satisfying.
All evolved under the direction of Ben Robinson (the company’s artistic director) and Chris Zemliauskas (music director, keyboardist, and orchestra conductor). Add the work of David Kossack (film editor and co-director) and Benjamin Costello (audio project design and production) and you’ve got a smashing creative team.
And what’s especially astonishing is that the 17 performers –– as well as the 11 musicians –– were (mostly all) contributing to the production from different locales across the country. The technical evolution of the project is a story in itself –– starting with the creation of a core musical line that musicians then listened to as they performed from within their closets (home-style studio soundproofing).
The show’s quality is matched by its relevance: a dysfunctional family tale that never grows old, of scheming relatives all trying to get their hands on the deceased patriarch’s mountain of money. The Donati family weep crocodile tears for Buoso (James Beckham) until they learn he’s left everything to the friars of the Santa Reparata monastery. The story’s set in Florence, Italy –– only this version’s in our pandemic present, with their search for Buoso’s will conducted over laptops and cell phones.
The family members have no choice but to Zoom together as they discover the bad news. Handsome young Rinuccio (Daniel Bates), in love with Lauretta (Elena Galván), comes up with the idea of asking her father, Gianni Schicchi (Dennis Jesse), a resourceful if shady fellow, for a new way to interpret the will.
Upper-class snobs to the core, the family members reject “the bumpkin” but are finally persuaded. Discovering that no one else yet knows of Buoso’s death, Schicchi ends up, with their consent, impersonating the sick man and dictating a new last testament. Everyone gets equal cash and the country estates they requested, but to their eventual dismay, they discover that Schicchi has assigned the best to himself: the magnificent Florence mansion, the prospering mills in Signa, and (ahem) a much-coveted mule.
And no one can expose his con, since that would mean risking discovery and all would lose (possibly a hand, as Florentine law dictated). Schicchi cedes the house to the young lovers, with the opera ending on their joy at the future –– and (in this production) Schicchi in elegant leisure clothes, reading Dante. (The Florentine poet, himself disdaining the nouveau riche, had assigned the historical Schicchi to his Inferno. Puccini gets the last word.)
The characters, just a few notches beyond commedia dell’arte types, are deliciously rendered –– and handsomely sung. Acting is vivid and sprightly paced, with visual humor at every turn: one couple (Sarah Beckham-Turner, Brent Turner) sprawling over the old man’s corpse, their son (Quay Blanks) irreverently bouncing a beach ball; another couple (Michael Scarcelle, Megnot Toggia) sparring above their flawless cheese board with upscale discretion. And Buoso’s elderly cousin (Steven Stull), tended by his nurse (Jeanne Goddard), struggling to assume his primacy.
More amusement comes from the hysterical cousin Zita (Emily Pulley), swabbing at her smeared eye makeup, and the hapless Betto (Nicolas Davis), trying to eat his popcorn with an imagined severed hand. Thanks to the multi-windowed screen, everyone is up close and in your face, and their fumbling with the Zoom technology is part of the scripted fun.
Even the small parts are priceless: a Fauci-like physician (Robert Hansen), the notary (Rebecca Shorstein), and two witnesses, Buoso’s manicurist (Trysten Reynolds) and shoe delivery guy (Jake Stamatis).
The comedy, both situational and visual, is constant. When everyone behaves like squawking chickens, a noisy flock actually rushes at us, the family members’ heads atop the birds’ bodies. But in other, more uplifting moments, we’re rewarded with views of Florence and the Italian campagna that nearly make us heartsick.
And of course, there’s Puccini’s music throughout –– and Galván’s lovely rendering of Lauretta’s plea to her father, the classic “O mio babbino caro,” is sweetness itself. Opera Ithaca’s “Gianni Schicchi” offers (to Ithaca audiences and well beyond) one hour of unmitigated pleasure.
Tickets for this streaming show (and two trailers) can be found at https://www.operaithaca.org/gianni-schicchi. “Gianni Schicchi” runs through Oct. 22 at Cinemapolis and then through Nov. 6 at www.operaithaca.org.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.