QUEENS, NY – The performance on January 19 of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Gianni Schicchi” by singers accompanied by the Queens Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos more than validated the orchestra’s motto: “World class music for the international community of Queens.”
The ensemble was founded in 1953 by David Katz, the father of the newly-elected Borough President of Queens, Melinda Katz, and its home venue is the LeFrak Concert Hall of Queens College, the modern space whose wooden walls with their cool golden tone are complemented by the warm red seats.
The orchestra, which is composed of musicians of all ages, was arrayed beneath a magnificent pipe organ case featuring ancient tracker- action technology – no electricity. The singer’s chairs were arranged across the stage in front of the instrumentalists, and there were minimalist props – a dinner table stage left and a bed on the right.
The program began with Kitsopoulos and David Ronis, the Director of the Queens College Opera Studio, participating in an interesting Q&A about the opera, whose libretto is based on one of the characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The work is most famous for “O mio babbino caro,” one of the world’s most beloved arias.
The story revolves around the dilemma faced by the family of the recently deceased Buoso Donati. As his relatives assemble to mourn his passing, his poor brother-in-law Betto, portrayed by Greek-American Bass Baritone Costas Tsourakis, says he heard a rumor that that Buoso has left everything to a monastery.
One of them, Rinnuccio, suggests that only Gianni Schicchi can advise them what to do, but the nasty old Zita sneers at Schicchi’s humble origins. Rinuccio, who is in love with his daughter Lauretta, defends Schicchi in an aria “Avete torto – You’re mistaken.”
When Schicchi arrives with Lauretta he quickly grasps the situation but is told by Zita to leave and take Lauretta with him. The couple despair as Schicchi turns to leave.
“O mio babbino caro Oh, my dear papa” is Lauretta plea to him to stay. A happy resolution will enable her to marry Rinuccio.
It worked. After Schicchi ascertains that nobody else knows Buoso is dead he orders the body removed to another room. When a doctor arrives, Schicchi mimics Buoso’s voice. He declares that he’s feeling better and asks the doctor to return that evening.
The next step was to call for the notary. Schicchi disguised himself as Buoso and announced he will dictate a new will. Everyone loved the scheme.
When the notary arrived they were delighted when Schicchi allocated minor bequests to each of them, but they had to restrain their outrage when he ordered most of the wealth left to “my devoted friend Gianni Schicchi.”
When the notary leaves their rage is countered by a love duet by Lauretta, who now has a dowry, and Rinuccio.
After Schicchi chases the relatives out of what is now his house, he stands and adores the young lovers.
In the Inferno, Dante condemned the trickster to hell, but in the opera Schicchi asks the audience to forgive him and agree that no better use could be found for Buoso’s wealth.
After the standing ovation, Kitsopoulos had to dash to the airport for a flight to Oklahoma, but he paused to tell TNH he was thrilled with the results of the performers’ efforts and the response of the audience, who marveled at the musicianship and professionalism of the borough’s orchestra.
Kitsopoulos said, “We worked with the singers all week but that’s not a lot of time. There was only one rehearsal with the orchestra…It’s a credit to them that they did such a wonderful, wonderful job.”
Kitsopoulos said of the opera, which was introduced in 1918 and combines harmonic dissonance with lyrical passages, that “It’s a difficult piece but it’s such a beautiful piece…it takes a great group of musicians to put this together with very little rehearsal.”
“Every day we were at it for a few hours…with just a piano before one rehearsal with the orchestra on Friday,” he said.
The delighted audience would never have guessed.
The Maestro is an Athenian through and through: “My mother was born in Plaka and my father is from Kalithea.”
His 2014 schedule will take him to Oklahoma for the OK Mozart Festival in June and to Indiana University, where his daughter Antonia is a singing student – his son is a trumpeter in Chicago – for a presentation of “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
Elias Mokole delighted the audience as the clever Schicchi. He told TNH that his family is Greek Orthodox from Lebanon and that his grandmother is Greek.
Eleni Caravakis of Nisyros and her husband Vasilios Tsourakis was delighted with her son Costas’ performance as Betto, and his brother Demosthenes was also proud. Costa said it “was a great experience…we became a family,” under Kitsopoulos’ leadership.
The bass baritone grew up in Astoria listening to Greek music on the radio thanks to his parents, and decided he wanted to be a singer. He attended Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts and when he was 16 he was bitten by the opera bug. Tsourakis has sung all over the world, including a concert in Greece and he looks forward to performing opera there.
Kitsopoulos’ “musical experiences comfortably span the worlds of opera and symphony, where he conducts in such venues as Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and Royal Albert Hall, and musical theater. He is in his sixth year as Music Director of the Queens Symphony Orchestra and continues as General Director of Chatham Opera, which he founded in 2005,” according to his official biography.
Kitsopoulos’ most recent recording is the Grammy Award-winning original Broadway cast album of the Tony-Award “Porgy and Bess.”