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'Il Trittico,' the Los Angeles Opera

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PATIENT, persistent Plácido Domingo long ago decided that he wanted Woody Allen for Los Angeles Opera. The company came up with any number of cockamamie proposals -- such as commissioning Allen to write the libretto for a new opera by John Williams, commissioning someone else to write an opera based on an Allen short story or having the filmmaker direct this or that opera -- that went nowhere.

In the end, though, few can woo like Domingo. So L.A. Opera's season got underway Saturday night with a new production of three Puccini one-acts, known collectively as "Il Trittico," and the final one was directed by a New Yorker famed for his antipathy to L.A. and for mocking just the kind of celebrity-conscious Hollywood society likely to show up for a Hollywood-themed L.A. Opera opening at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The project made little sense. The triptych's first two operas, "Il Tabarro" and "Suor Angelica," are new productions by another filmmaker, William Friedkin. Meanwhile, L.A. Opera threw out Friedkin's perfectly fine production of the third, "Gianni Schicchi," which lasted only one season six years ago on a double bill with Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle."

Domingo's instincts as general manager of L.A. Opera aren't always sure. Last season was lackluster. But anyone brave enough to knock on the sometimes temperamental Friedkin's door with the news that he was getting only two-thirds of a "Trittico" clearly had something in mind.

Friedkin responded with a pair of smart, beautifully crafted, beautifully designed and beautifully performed productions that gave grit, grandeur and even a hint of class to old-fashioned melodrama. Meanwhile, the self-deprecating Allen, who described himself to The Times recently as "not the greatest choice in the world" to direct an opera, turned out to be the greatest choice in the world for the comic conclusion to "Trittico."

Allen also called "Schicchi" "funny compared to 'Tosca,' not funny compared to 'Duck Soup.' " Don't believe that either. A production of genius, his "Gianni Schicchi" is a riot. And I say this as someone seldom attuned to Allen's comic sensibility and drawn, if at all to his films, to those in a more pretentious Bergmanesque mode.

But maybe all he needs is great material.

First, though, "Il Tabarro" (The Cloak) and "Suor Angelica" (Sister Angelica), which are not great material. The former is Puccini noir. A jealous Parisian barge owner stabs his wife's lover in a fit of passion. In the evening's middle so-called panel, an aristocrat sent to a nunnery as penance for her teenage pregnancy poisons herself when she learns of the death of her son. The most shamelessly sentimental moment in all of Puccini may well be when the Virgin descends as Angelica dies and bathes the convent in mystical light, offering her dazzling grace.

When "Trittico" premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918, critics derided these two melodramas as cinematic. That's now, of course, their draw, and Friedkin's productions are cinematic in the best sense. Santo Loquasto's sets handsomely re-create the grungier side of the Seine and a lovely Italianate convent, both sensitively lighted by Mark Jonathan.

In "Tabarro," Friedkin carefully homes in on dramatic motivation. The performances by Mark Delavan as Michele, the barge's captain; Anja Kampe as Giorgetta, his torpid wife; and Salvatore Licitra, as her lover, are powerful vocally and dramatically. James Conlon, the company's music director and another star of the evening, creates from the pit a sense of engaging unease.

The novelty of this "Suor Angelica" is the unearthing, so to speak, of a brief passage in which Angelica sings of her poisons as she picks hemlock and other plants. This is weird psychedelic music that was cut after the first performance and only recently restored at La Scala. It gives a whole new tinge to the opera, allowing the mystical Madonna's appearance to seem drug-induced. Friedkin sticks with the church kitsch, but he gets away with it thanks to a rapturous performance as Angelica by Sondra Radvanovsky and to Conlon's equally rapturous conducting. Angelica's unforgiving aunt, who delivers the news about the boy, is one of the few major Puccini mezzo roles, and an icy Larissa Diadkova is gripping.

Allen's "Schicchi" is really the Allens' "Schicchi." Updated to Florence in the 1960s, it stars the veteran baritone Thomas Allen in the title role, and what fun he is in his Mafia striped suit and two-tone shoes, his hair slicked back and his mustache rakishly thin. Loquasto's set is its own riot, a mansion in wild disrepair. The opera's 50 minutes are not enough to drink in the fabulous details.

But what is perhaps most surprising about Allen's production, which is brilliantly sung and acted down to the most minor character and walk-on, is how uncinematic it is. He begins with a screen in front of the stage projecting silly film credits, but that only underscores the sheer theatricality of the classic farce that follows.

Allen -- Woody, that is -- manages to be both irreverent and absolutely true to the music and the spirit of the work. He adds all kinds of inventions in the bedchamber of Buoso Donati, who has just died. The relatives are gathered to read the will. Schicchi is a schemer brought in to forge a better one.

The young lovers, Schicchi's daughter Lauretta (Laura Tatulescu) and Rinuccio (Saimir Pirgu) are uncommonly sexy. Jill Grove as the wiliest of the relatives is a hoot. Everyone is a hoot. In his greatest stroke of all, Allen makes even the opera's maudlin hit tune, "O mio babbino caro," hilarious.

Allen did not take a bow, but the dead Buoso did.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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