A FLORENTINE TRAGEDY/GIANNI SCHICCHI by Alexander Zemlinsky (Tragedy) and Giacomo Puccini (Schicchi) (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). To May 25. $12-$318. 416-363-8231. See listing. Rating: NNN
Passions of various sorts run high in the Canadian Opera Company double bill pairing a lesser-known tragedy by Alexander Zemlinsky with a comic gem by Giacomo Puccini.
Director Catherine Malfitano and designer Wilson Chin have set both operas in the same house but a century apart, a fascinating concept that partially pays off.
In Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy, a merchant (Alan Held) in 1920s Florence discovers his wife (Gun-Brit Barkmin) in a possible tryst with a prince (Michael König).
It's a familiar story of cuckolding and vengeance - handled more dramatically in Puccini's Il Tabarro. What's fascinating is how Zemlinsky weaves elements of bitter humour and tension into his score, which is as richly textured as the exotic fabrics the merchant sells and performed beautifully by conductor Andrew Davis and the COC orchestra, even if at times the balance with the singers is off.
The staging feels a bit awkward, particularly in the latter half. But Held devours his role as the wronged man, particularly in his menacing aria about adultery.
Things are much more focused in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, set in the present day, about how the clever title character (Held again) helps alter a dead man's will to assist the bourgeois family his daughter might soon be marrying into. It's clever comedy with a touch of satire, and Malfitano effectively brings out the pettiness of the family while using almost every inch - horizontal and vertical - of Chin's set.
The singers, clad in Terese Wadden's fashion-forward costumes, are superb, especially Barbara Dever and Donato Di Stefano's bossy cousins Zita and Simone, with René Barbera and Simone Osborne full of youthful lyricism and naivete.
Held proves as nimble a comic actor as he is frightening in the earlier dramatic role, commanding the stage with his booming baritone and sending audiences off happy.