Ghost of a Chance
Michael Ching's opera Buoso's Ghost wows the Windy City.
by CHRIS DAVIS
Carl Ratner, the former artistic director of Chicago Opera Theater, confesses that he does not know for sure exactly how the COT first came into contact with Michael Ching's lighthearted one-act Buoso's Ghost. "It was just one of those things that was out there," he says, escorting me backstage to meet the cast and crew.
As it turns out, Ratner a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern, is a Memphian by both birth and raising, though his soft voice and crystal-clear diction betray not the faintest hint of our distinctive local drawl. He left the city on the bluff to attend college more than 20 years ago and only returns occasionally to visit his family and friends. Ratner has likewise returned to his artistic home, the Chicago Opera Theatre, to direct a double bill featuring Giacomo Puccini's famed early-20th-century comedy Gianni Schicchi and its lesser-known sequel Buoso's Ghost, written and composed by Opera Memphis' always-innovative director, almost 80 years after the original. Whatever it was that led the COT to Ching was fortunate, however, since all of the major Chicago critics from the Tribune, Sun Times, and Reader seem to be in agreement that while Ching may not be in the same league as Puccini musically, his opera is a hell of a lot more fun to watch.
The character Gianni Schicchi was lifted from an obscure passage in Dante's Inferno, referring to a tortured soul doomed to run about Hell like a mad dog biting and snapping at everyone he encounters. One might imagine any number of lurid crimes that would lead to such a strange punishment. But Puccini's imaginings were less than extraordinary, even if the songs he composed to accompany them were. He depicted Schicchi as a cunning member of Florence's nouveau riche who fast-talks his way into a sizable fortune in what amounts to being little more than medieval version of Daddy's Dead, Who's Got the Will?
Admittedly, it is a witty piece, and the fact that the 58-minute opera unfolds in real-time adds to its uniqueness, but COT's production was less than inspired. In its early scenes the singers gracelessly tramp about the stage looking for Buoso Donati's will, with little or no sense of comic timing. Only conductor Lawrence Rapchak's breathless pace and Philip Kraus' wonderfully rich and very funny vocalizations as the sly Schicchi provide the audience with anything of interest -- that is, until soprano Michelle Areyzaga releases a beautifully simple rendition of "O Mio Babbino Caro," and the nearly full house goes wild.
Oddly enough, all of the performers' awkwardness comes to an end when the lights come up on Buoso's Ghost, Ching's delicious sequel to the main event, which picks up the action at the exact point where Puccini left off. In Ching's musically clever addition, Schicchi discovers that old Buoso Donati didn't just die, but was poisoned by his own family members. As Kraus raises his potent and extremely malleable baritone in "Picture the Poisoners," the various family members, all dressed in ghostly white, flutter beneath a black light toting flourescent orange cheeses, bright yellow breads, and other horribly unnatural looking foodstuffs, brought in to aid in old Buoso's "recovery." Ching has also built in a classic courtroom motif, and an angry mob scene that could have been ripped from any classic monster film. Though musically he works primarily with themes put forward by Puccini, he also tosses in a mighty aural signifier in the form of American gospel singing and something that sounds an awful lot like "Happy Trails."
John von Rhein, the Tribune's chief opera critic begs his readers not to make "odious" comparisons between Ching's "modest talent" and Puccini's "genius." No doubt Ching has climbed upon the shoulders of a giant and proceeded to call attention to himself by making naughty noises. But von Rhein who has misunderstood Ching's ending and declared it a "happy" one is perhaps not capable of understanding how complex his idiom is. Ching has created a tenuous ending at best and left the door open for subsequent episodes. His music generates as much mirth as his situations, and all that is lacking from Buoso's Ghost is a moment of loveliness answering Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro."
"Not only does Michael do a great job at matching Puccini's voices," Kraus says after Friday's performance, "he continues to illuminate all of the characters. It is a triumph of clean, to-the-point writing and it feels like a whole show. It feels like Act I and Act II. It doesn't feel like I am shifting between composers."
You can e-mail Chris Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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