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Utah Opera in top form for 2 of Puccini’s works

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Jennifer Welch-Babidge, right, and Joyce Castle in "Suor Angelica."

Jennifer Welch-Babidge, right, and Joyce Castle in “Suor Angelica.”

Jason Olson, Deseret News

"SUOR ANGELICA" & "GIANNI SCHICCHI," UTAH OPERA, Capitol Theatre, May 15, additional performances through May 23 (801-355-2787)

Giacomo Puccini's one-act operas "Suor Angelica" and "Gianni Schicchi," which together with "Il Tabarro" make up "Il Trittico," haven't exactly been on Utah Opera's radar. Nor, for that matter, have they received the attention that other Puccini operas enjoy. But cast with the right leads, they rank right up there with the composer's best-known works.

Utah Opera closes out its season this week with these two works. For "Suor Angelica," this is its Utah Opera premiere, while "Gianni Schicchi" hasn't been seen on the stage of the Capitol Theatre since 1988.

"Suor Angelica" tells the story of Sister Angelica, who joined a convent seven years earlier after the birth of her illegitimate son. Of noble birth, Angelica was forced out of her home by her stern aunt to minimize the effects of her scandalous behavior. As a nun, Angelica seeks salvation and redemption, which finally come to her through the Virgin Mary's intercession.

Headlining the cast is soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge, making her Utah Opera debut as well as her debut in the title role. She is absolutely mesmerizing as the tortured nun. At Saturday's opening night performance, she brought credibility to her portrayal as well as passion and sensitivity. Her gorgeously rich and fluid voice is well-suited to this role and allows her to bring out the delicate subtleties of her music. Her "Senza Mamma," in which she laments the death of her young boy, was heartfelt and compelling.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle was riveting as the princess, Angelica's heartless aunt, who shows no compassion or feeling for her niece. She was wonderfully convincing in the role and her lengthy scene with Angelica was forceful.

While "Suor Angelica" explores the darkest of emotions, "Gianni Schicchi" delves into what greed can do to a family — but through the eyes of comedy.

Puccini's only comic work, "Gianni Schicchi" is a hilarious piece that exposes the shallowness of one family. When the opera opens, Buoso Donati lies dead in his bed surrounded by his relatives. They've heard that Donati left his considerable fortune to a monastery, so they go on a frantic search for his will. It's eventually found, and Donati does leave his estate to the monks. Someone calls in Gianni Schicchi for advice. He tells them he'll impersonate the dead man and fool the lawyer into writing a new will. What he doesn't tell them is that he informs the attorney to leave everything to himself.

Baritone Michael Wanko returns to Utah Opera as Gianni Schicchi, a role that is made for him. A wonderfully talented comic actor and fine singer, he quite literally steals the show. And that's not all that easy to do with the cast that's been assembled for this production. He's up against some stiff competition, but Wanko shines.

Soprano Megan Phillips Cash is delightful as his daughter Lauretta. She has a wonderfully expressive and lovely voice, and she did a fabulous job with the opera's most famous number, "O Mio Babbino Caro."

Tenor Aaron Blake, as Lauretta's love interest Rinuccio, is also splendid, and the two make a terrific couple.

In fact, this is a cast that one can only praise, because everyone is in top form. It's difficult to single anyone out because all were wonderful Saturday night.

The cast includes Castle as Zita, baritone Darrell Babidge as Betto, tenor Todd Miller as Gherardo, soprano Chanel Wood as Nella and mezzo-soprano Jessica Bowers as La Ciesca.

Stage director Kathleen Smith Belcher updated both operas and set them in the Italy of 1947. It works wonderfully well, and Belcher's staging was nuanced and her pacing for "Gianni Schicchi" was on the mark.

Utah Opera chorus master Susanne Sheston conducted members of the Utah Symphony, who played with fine articulation and crisp execution.

e-mail: ereichel@desnews.com