Review: ‘La Serva Padrona’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’ at Catholic University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music

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The Catholic University of America presents an operatic double bill La Serva Padrona and Gianni Schicchi for their Spring 2016 production. La Serva Padrona composed by Giovanni Pergolesi was originally performed in 1733 and Gianni Schicchi composed by Giacomo Puccini was first performed in 1918. “It’s so hard to get good help” is an expression that Stage Director, Dr. James Hampton, amusingly notes as a theme that came to mind when pairing the intermezzo and the one-act opera. Indeed, Hampton found a way to cleverly weave these two pieces together; not only setting both productions in Florence during the later 1700s, but also giving “cameo” non-singing appearances to certain characters in the opposing opera.

"La Serva Padrona': Serpina (Crossley Hawn) and Uberto (Eric Gramatges. Photo by Dan Weaver.
“La Serva Padrona’: Serpina (Crossley Hawn) and Uberto (Eric Gramatges. Photo by Dan Weaver.

Dr. Grayson Wagstaff, Dean of the School of Music, gave opening remarks, saying that, “the double bill pairs two pieces that are different in style, yet both entertain while making you think.”

The operas have a double cast, which provides the opportunity for more students to gain experience performing, and also allows for vocal rest during the four-day run.  I attended a performance conducted by Maestro Simeone Tartaglione, Clinical Assistant Professor, Orchestral Conducting. Maestro Tartaglione was energetic and led the orchestra with aplomb.

Set Designer Thomas Donahue did a beautiful job in creating a simple but effective set design, much of was utilized in both operas, with minor yet striking differences. For example, many of the same types of furniture appear in both pieces, but they are painted in different colors to differentiate between the theme of each opera. La Serva Padrona displays romantic, billowy gold-toned curtains hanging behind gorgeous arches and in Gianni Schicchi the curtains have a more masculine appearance, setting the stage for the opulent home of a bachelor. I urge you to take it all in, and notice the small touches.  Donahue paid great attention to detail.

Costume Designer Glenn. A. Breed and Hair and Make-up Advisor Melissa Theide worked well together on the beautiful, well-tailored period costumes and wigs. The make-up was exceptionally done, particularly in creating older looking characters in Gianni Schicchi. 

La Serva Padrona has a trio for its cast, a fun group who and left me smiling with their antics. Baritone Eric Gramatges (Uberto) has a gorgeous tone and sings expressively. Crossley Hawn (Serpina) has a lovely, vibrant soprano, precise in her tuning, and excels in the recitative sections.

Wyatt Dylan (Vespone) is very humorous in the non-singing, yet indispensable role, keeping the action moving.  The acting was excellent, with Hawn portraying a servant who cleans half-heartedly and does not hesitate to lounge about in the lovely furnishings. Gramatges’ Uberto is an older bachelor who has employed Serpina for most of her life and he believably transforms his playful affection for her into love. Gramatges and Hawn’s final duet “Per te ho io nel core” was very sweet, and well done.

Gianni Schicchi was the second opera of the evening, well placed in the programming with its larger orchestra which performed sumptuously. The delightfully suspenseful story about family members dealing with the Last Will and Testament of their wealthy, deceased uncle was engaging. Each of the cast members were professional, their solo parts well-rehearsed and polished  Be on the lookout for unsung subplots of mischief occurring as the opera progresses; it was quite entertaining to watch as family members try on their deceased uncle’s clothing and look through his silver.

Gianni Schicchi (Kevin Johnson) reads the will to the family. Photo by Dan Weaver.
Gianni Schicchi (Kevin Johnson) reads the will to the family. Photo by Dan Weaver.

Kevin Johnson (Gianni Schicchi) was exceptional in the title role and has tremendous stage presence. He is a skillful actor who was able to traverse the fine line of a character that is corrupt but who you cannot help but enjoy. His voice is beautiful and he was able to alter his tone without strain, comically, at key points in the plot.

Tenor Jerrod A. Laber (Rinuccio) is the quintessential romantic lead with a strong, expressive voice that carries well. Emily Casey (Lauretta) shone in her role of Schicchi’s daughter, who is in love with Rinuccio. Laber and Casey have wonderful chemistry and seemingly float about the stage together, with youthful energy. Casey was enchanting in the best known aria from Gianni Schicchi,”O mio babbino caro” – harpist, Marie Harrison particularly did a beautiful job. All of the singers’ voices blend well in their ensemble scenes – the female trio “Spogliati, bambolino” was especially well done.

I urge you to attend CUA’s Double Bill Opera performance – you will enjoy the suspense and lighthearted twists even if you know the stories. And if you don’t know the stories? Go and be surprised!

Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

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The Catholic University of America’s Spring Opera Double Bill:  La Serva Padrona and Gianni Schicchi (with subtitles) plays through Sunday, March 20, 2016 at CUA’s Hartke Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 319-5416, or purchase them online.

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Katie Weeks
Katie Weeks is a graduate of Boston University (Master of Music, Vocal Performance) and George Mason University (Bachelor of Music, Vocal Performance). She was awarded the highly competitive Outstanding Musician of the Year Award by a unanimous vote of the music faculty of George Mason University in May 2003 and the winner of many competitions, including the GMU Concerto Competition, GMU Honors Recital, and the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) Virginia State Competition. In the summer of 2004, Katie attended the University of Miami School of Music at Salzburg program, where she studied voice and German, and in 2002, Katie received a grant to pursue her love of the German language and lieder in a seven-week language immersion program at Middlebury College, Vermont. Since graduate school, Katie has taken a hiatus from performing, but teaches voice and has participated in community theater and cabaret performances in the DC area. From a family of six children, Katie embraces her Irish heritage (her mother is from Dublin) and sings most summers on the Emerald Isle. She currently lends her skills to the federal government as an analyst, and is a dedicated yogi.