Arts and Entertainment

Puccini twofer is Vashon Opera’s next star-studded show

Vashon Opera’s production of two one-act operas by Giacomo Puccini will bring both tragedy and comedy to the stage of Bethel Church next weekend.

The double bill, “Il Tabarro” and “Gianni Schicchi,” will be sung by a Vashon Opera’s trademark mix of local luminaries, regional and national opera stars as well a sprinkling of other talented community members.

Soprano Jennifer Krikawa, Vashon Opera’s artistic director, will sing the role of Giorgetta in “Il Tabarro” — a tale of working class adultery and murder that would be right at home in the three chord strains of a grim old Appalachian ballad.  But in Puccini’s intricate music and telling of the story, there is nothing simple, said Krikawa.

“I think it describes what happens to these people psychologically,” she said. “You can hear all the complicated things they are going through. They can’t move on, they can’t get over it, and in their fighting, you can also hear their longing. It draws you in.”

The opera, which premiered in New York City in 1918, takes place on a barge on the Seine, in Paris, and chronicles the collapse of the marriage of the barge owner and his wife. Tenor Ernest Alvarez, who thrilled island audiences with his portrayal of Pinkerton in Vashon Opera’s recent “Madama Butterfly,” will play the wife’s doomed lover, and Charles Robert Stephens, a baritone with a storied career that has included principal roles in major opera companies, will play the tortured husband.

In striking contrast, the other opera in the program, “Gianni Schicchi,” is a farcical romp that takes place at the deathbed of a wealthy citizen of Florence, where greedy relatives gather to scheme about how to snatch the dying man’s fortune. Andrew Krikawa, known for his comedic gifts as well as his soaring baritone, will play the title role of Gianni, a clever outsider who steps in to settle the inheritance dispute.

Noted soprano Christina Kowalski, who played Micaela in Vashon Opera’s “Carmen,” will return to the island to play Lauretta, the character who sings one of Puccini’s most beloved arias, “O Mio Babbino Caro,” in the opera.

Other notable stars will also come out to shine.

Mezzo Julia Benzinger, who sings with Deutsche Oper Berlin, will be making her local debut in the production with roles in both one-acts.

The cast will also include singers more familiar to local audiences — islanders Joe Farmer and Gary Koch will lend their tenors to the proceedings. And soprano Holly Boaz, an islander who has appeared on stages throughout the Northwest and beyond, has been cast in both “Il Tabarro” and “Gianni Schicchi.”

Still other islanders, whose singing experience is limited to the Vashon Island Chorale, community theater and church choirs, will fill out the ensemble.

Jennifer Krikawa said she was thrilled with the casting and happy that her opera company has generated opportunities for both professional and non-professional singers alike.

“I feel like the people we’ve asked to do things have stepped up and done a great job,” she said. “I love giving people

chances — even the people we bring in as professionals are sometimes doing a role for the first time that they have always wanted on their resume.”

James Brown, who has been involved with five previous Vashon Opera shows, will wear several hats this time around, as conductor, stage director, musical director and orchestral arranger of the double-bill. He’s assembled an orchestra that includes both distinguished local and out-of-town players.

And as is typical in Vashon Opera productions, a small army of islanders are working behind the scenes to create the set for the production.

Laura Strand Whitmore, an islander who teaches art in a West Seattle elementary school, is supervising a crew of 12 volunteer painters who are working on the complicated set, which must flip around at intermission to accommodate the very different locales at the two operas.

“This is the most intricate set we have every tried to put into Bethel Church,” said Krikawa.

She also said she’s eager to share “Il Tabarro” and “Gianni Schicchi” with audiences.

“They are a great pair,” she said. “The first is serious and disturbingly dark, while the other is full of character and brings a sense of hope and lightness.”

Vashon Opera will present “Il Tabarro” and “Gianni Schicchi” at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 17 and 18, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at Bethel Church. Tickets, $32, are on sale at www.vashonopera.org and Vashon Bookshop.

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