Johnny on the Spot

A Puccini opera gets an update &mdash and a cast of wonderful singers.

Most occasional opera fans only know Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (pronounced skee-kee) because of its beautiful aria for soprano, "O Mio Babbino Caro" &mdash included, it would seem, on every compilation of Puccini hits ever recorded. But this lovely aria is just the most accessible segment of a one-act comic creation originally intended by its composer to share the stage with "Il tabarro" and "Suor Angelica" in a grouping called "Il trittico."

Time hasn't been kind to the two latter pieces, but Gianni Schicchi continues to be produced and recorded, and offers a few moments of stunning melody as well as some modern dissonances that will come as a surprise to lovers of La Boheme and Madama Butterfly.

Now American Stage, in conjunction with the St. Petersburg Opera Company, is presenting the opera in English translation &mdash titled Johnny Schicchi &mdash and the excellent news is, the voices assembled for this production are consistently wonderful.

The comedy itself is less than riveting. Its plot is too simple and too predictable, but still this is a satisfying evening and worthy of attention. We don't get much opera in the Bay area and when we do, it's usually one of the warhorses. So there's more than one reason to welcome this fine production.

The story the opera tells (original libretto by Giovacchino Forzano) is about the family members of wealthy Buoso Donati, who have gathered just after his death to discover what he left them in his will. What they discover is shocking: He's given everything to a monastery. Devoted to reversing this bequest while they can, they call on a con man named Johnny Schicchi to impersonate Donati &mdash only the family knows that he's dead &mdash and to meet with the dead man's lawyer and rewrite the will.

A brief subplot involves the romance of Donati's young relation Rinuccio and Schicchi's daughter Lauretta, and class conflict is invoked since the Donatis tend to despise impecunious Schicchi. But the trickster is ingenious &mdash he's after all based on the shrewd Harlequin from commedia dell'arte &mdash and by the time he's finished, he's turned several lives upside down. And then he has the nerve to address the audience directly, and request our absolution.

As directed by Todd Olson, the local production is presented as one-quarter realism, three-quarters farce, with the search for the will played with exaggerated activity, but the Rinuccio/Lauretta love affair portrayed as exceedingly serious.

All the voices are superb, with perhaps the most outstanding belonging to Phoenix Gayles as Lauretta, Rimas Karnavicius as Simone, Adam Hall as Rinuccio and Melissa Misener as Zita.

Of course, the key part is Schicchi, and baritone Richard Cassell holds nothing back in making a winning caricature of this clever fox. Looking like an older Al Pacino gone to seed, Cassell blithely hams it up, using his rubbery face to inform us from the start that he's smarter than anyone realizes, and can exult in his knavery while the Donati family goes berserk.

A much more typical Puccini figure is Gayles' Lauretta, whose love for Rinuccio is brightly sincere, and whose tuneful appeal to her father is naturally the high point of the evening. As her would-be husband Rinuccio, Hall shows a robust, earnest intensity, and as Amantio the lawyer, Thomas Massey is nicely smug and clueless.

The four-man orchestra &mdash conductor Mark Sforzini on bassoon, Michael Galvin on violin, Fred Gratta on cello, and Joshua Quinn on keyboard &mdash heroically tries to replace a full contingent, and if we miss a richer sound, still this group is note-perfect.

Although the Puccini original, based on a few lines from Dante's Inferno, takes place in the 13th century, director Olson places these figures in the immediate present, and uses Scott Cooper's modern living room from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as their setting. Adrin Puente's contemporary costumes might be found on any family in 2011. I won't claim that I was ravished by all the music of Johnny Schicchi — there are a very few minutes that remind me of Puccini's best — but with a St. Pete Opera Butterfly on the schedule for June 10-14 at the Palladium, this is a welcome appetizer and reminder that the Bay area can offer some truly spectacular voices.

If you're looking for a fine way to spend an hour, check it out. And get ready for near-perfection &mdash Cio-Cio San and Lieutenant Pinkerton, and their gorgeous melodies &mdash in six short weeks.

Three-and-a-half stars

St. Petersburg Opera Company@American Stage, 163 Third St. N., St. Petersburg. Runs through May 8, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday-Sunday. $25-$39.50. 727-823-PLAY,

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