REVIEW: Gianni Schicchi

The University of Michigan’s Voice and Opera Department features two fully-staged operas per semester: one large production at the Power Center for Performing Arts and one “Chamber Opera” at the McIntosh Theater in the Earl V. Moore Building. The Chamber Opera is a semester-long commitment that students audition for at the start of the term. This results in a performance of two shows at the end of the semester. This year, the class performed Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (1918) directed by the infamous and well-respected Mo Zhou. The show was minimal in production but grand in performance. The show boasted many great triumphs in the often-overlooked realm of Chamber Opera performances at SMTD. 

Gianni Schicchi is a one-act farce that revolves around the scheming family members of the wealthy Buoso Donati. When Buoso dies and leaves behind a substantial inheritance, his relatives are desperate to claim their shares. However, they discover that Buoso has bequeathed his wealth to a monastery. In a clever twist, the family enlists the help of the cunning Gianni Schicchi to impersonate the deceased Buoso and rewrite the will in their favor. The opera explores themes of greed, deception, and the consequences of manipulating legal matters for personal gain. The music follows the trend of Puccini’s rich melodies and clever attention to lyricism. This story sparked Puccini’s writing— implementing challenging and chaotic Italian phrases to match the disorganization of the family. This requires virtuosic singers with immense attention to detail, which was apparent in this production.  

This cast was filled with a variety of ages, from first-year voice majors to the highest level of education for vocal students at SMTD. Each student brought an eclectic, originally developed character into the performance. The characters had clear intentions and balanced the comedy of the opera with virtuosity and vocal integrity. Opera productions do not use microphones, and it remains astounding to me to hear the raw opulence behind these skilled voices. This production reminded me of the balancing act of opera: maintaining masterful singing while implementing physicality and strong acting choices. The cast handled this skillfully, producing a performance that demanded attention from the audience.    

This opera includes the famous aria “O mio babbino caro”, sung by Schicci’s daughter, Lauretta (Cinderella Ksebati). Ms. Ksebati brilliantly maneuvered through the octave leaps and expressively romantic musical lines. Her aria was an unforgettable moment in the show. The avaricious Zita (Aria Minasian) dazzled the audience with her hearty contralto voice—a rare gift to hear onstage. Simone (Xavier Perry) conducted some of the most hilarious and memorable moments in the show. Perry’s attention to detail and capacious vocal quality were well-received by the audience, along with his sensitive comedic timing.

The set design was effective for the minimal space in the McIntosh Theater. The moment the show began, the scene and characters were immediately understood from the set before a thing was said. The crumbled papers, assorted clutter, and vintage furniture informed me of the disorganized and materialistic qualities of the family. The production could have been further enhanced with specific lighting design that was unfortunately unavailable in the McIntosh Theater. 

The successful and admired production of Gianni Schicchi brings the 2023 SMTD Voice and Opera Department productions to a close. Next semester, a 2017 opera entitled Elizabeth Cree will be performed March 21-24 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. 

Aria Minasian (left), Jabari Kacim (center), Xavier Perry (right).



Image thanks to Lydia Qiu with University of Michigan SMTD.

REVIEW: Accidental Death of an Anarchist

November 16-18 was the showing of Mirit Skeen’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Each directing major is tasked with directing a full-length show during their senior year, and this play was chosen and directed by Mirit Skeen in fulfillment of the requirement. ADOAA is a political farce written by Dario Fo and translated into English by Ed Emory. First performed in 1970 in Italy, it’s a timely tale of the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing and the death of Giuseppe Pinelli while being interrogated by the police. 

As an admirer of Mirit Skeen’s directing work, this was no disappointment. This piece is not for the faint of heart, and a huge work to tackle in just a few weeks. There are moments when I come across performances at SMTD that remind me of the incredibly high level of art we are surrounded by. This was one of those moments. Hailing from one of the best music and theater schools in the country, it is a gift to see peers and colleagues at work creating inventive works of art. 

The cast consisted of 6 actors including Nathan Goldberg (BFA 24′), Lenin Izquierdo (BFA 24′), Jalen Steudle (BFA 24′), Jack Weaver (BFA 24′), Hannah Gansert (BFA 25′), Casey Wilcox (BFA 24′). With a seasoned troupe of actors, each character was thoughtfully produced and executed. Some moments indulged absolute clownery—and those were the audience favorites. The energy brought by the actors was reciprocated by the 11 pm audience. 

Historically, it was unknown if Pinelli’s death was a suicide or a framed murder. The police claimed the death was a result of suicide or an unconscious fall. The judge ruled it as an “accidental death”. However, evidence later supported the event to be a cover-up aimed to avoid investigation and obscure complacency with the guilty neofascist groups. These groups were working to impede the spread of communism, labor, rights, and political decent. Four of the characters in the play are police officers aiming to close and cover up the case (all with unique personalities and intentions). The character of the Maniac (Weaver) infiltrates the inner workings of the corrupt system, using an archetypal clown-like persona to critique the flawed investigation. This included the Maniac breaking the fourth wall, revealing the innate relevance of the piece to the audience.

There was a note from the dramaturgy team (Naomi Parr and Ty Amsterdam) that particularly spoke to me moments after seeing the show: “Perhaps there’s a comfort to be found in 2023 that we are not alone in grappling with staggering polarization, rampant disinformation, and the complexities of responding to terror. Even while democracy dies in darkness and the truth is more important now than ever, perhaps we can turn back to the court jesters to speak truth to power. Or if nothing else, at least we can revel in a Maniac in public office whose term limits start at lights up and end at curtain call.” I appreciated this brilliant inscription from the team, and it encapsulates precisely the message transmitted through Mirit’s direction. 

Next from the SMTD Department of Theater is Imogen Says Nothing, a hilarious feminist hijacking of Shakespeare. This Aditi Kapil play will be performed at the Power Center from November 30th-December 3rd.



Image thanks to Mirit Skeen on Instagram.