Woody Allen does Puccini

By Carol Eisenberg

September 9, 2008 at 1:01pm

Woody Allen is on a roll.

On the heels of rave reviews for his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the 72-year-old director has broken into a new genre – Italian opera. If that weren’t departure enough, his directorial debut is in Los Angeles, a city he has long loathed.

Allen and William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, are together directing three, one-act operas that make up Giacomo Puccini’s “Il Trittico.” Both had been wined and dined by Placido Domingo, director of the Los Angeles Opera who has staked his tenure on creating “new and different opera experiences.”

The famed tenor had already brought in film legends such as Maximilian Schell, Bruce Beresford, Herbert Ross, John Schlesinger, Marthe Keller and Franco Zeffirelli.

Still, opera buffs were a bit skeptical about Allen, especially after he raised eyebrows by calling Gianni Schicchi “funny compared to Tosca, not funny compared to Duck Soup.”

He had also agonized publicly over his inexperience, telling the Village Voice:

I was very reluctant, because I don’t want to disappoint everybody, which I’m sure I will. . . I said I would years ago, because these things are planned years in advance. I figured, ‘Eh, I’ll be dead before it happens. I’m 72. I’m never going to make it to the opera.’ But it came around, and next Monday, I start rehearsal. I’ll just do the best I can, and then get out of town and let them tar and feather Friedkin.

In fact, Saturday’s opening performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion got reviews bordering on ecstactic.

“A production of genius, his Gianni Schicchi is a riot,” wrote Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed. “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.”

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times was also impressed, although he took issue with some of Allen’s choices.

“Far from being incompetent, his Gianni Schicchi is a cleverly updated and inventive staging of the popular comedy, marred only by a regrettable directorial liberty at the end.”

Though the story is set in late-13th-century Florence, Allen’s take begins with a comic montage of film credits — all mock-Italian names like Giuseppe Prosciutto and Oriana Fellato. A street band plays “Funiculì, Funicula” in the background.

Although the gimmick may be silly, Tommasini wrote, it sets the tone for what comes when the curtain goes up.

The opening performance of Gianni Schicchi received a standing ovation, but Allen did not take a bow. Tommasini reported he was too nervous to come out on stage.

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