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'Gianni' a genuine pleasure

TURLOCK -- It's usually not considered good to pose as a dying man, change his will and take most of his money.

Dante consigned such a person to hell in his "Divine Comedy." But Puccini, drawing on the same story, made him a hero.

"Gianni Schicchi," a one-act comic opera running at California State University, Stanislaus, turns the setup into a tale of robbing the selfish rich to aid the deserving poor.

Directors Joseph Wiggett and Andrew Sutherland's English- language staging is charming, fast-moving and full of fun. While some singers are better than others at projecting their voices and enunciating the lyrics, the production is for the most part easy to follow.

Like the Metropolitan Opera's wonderful movie version seen last year, this production is set in 1930s Florence, Italy, rather than in the original medieval time period.

The story begins with the death of wealthy aristocrat Buoso Donati. His greedy family members are upset to learn that he has left nearly everything to a monastery.

Gianni Schicchi, a businessman, learns of their situation and asks if he can help. Realizing that no one beyond him and the family knows of Donati's death, he offers to pose as the aristocrat and get a lawyer to change the will.

But Schicchi isn't doing this to be nice; he has other plans up his sleeve. He secretly hates Donati's relatives because they have refused to let his daughter Lauretta marry their young relative Rinuccio because of her lack of wealth.

When he poses as Donati, he awards the entire estate to himself, Schicchi, so he can help the young lovers wed after all.

Two different casts are performing the parts, with the strongest singers next appearing at the 6:30 p.m. Feb. 15 show and the weaker performers appearing at the 8 p.m. show the same day, according to Wiggett. This review applies to the stronger cast.

Baritone Joshua Bailey, who was fabulous as Seymour in the college's 2006 staging of "Little Shop of Horrors," scores once again in the title role. A superior singer and actor, he has a great sense of comic timing and is a joy to watch on stage. Fortunately, he appears in all the performances.

Tenor Marcio de Oliveira offers a passionate portrayal of Rinuccio and shows off an agile, multifaceted voice and a vibrant stage presence.

Soprano Liberty Pierce, who plays his love interest, shines in the opera's most famous aria, "Oh dear daddy," in which she begs her father to help her marry Rinuccio. The gorgeous melody will be recognizable to all thanks to its use in countless commercials.

One of the other most pleasing musical scenes in the show is provided by Monica Errington-Hull as Zita, Courtney Nance as La Ciesca and Katy Burroughs as Nella, Donati's family members who kiss up to Schicchi in an attempt to convince him to give them more money.

Under conductor Dustin Soiseth's direction, the orchestra sounds crisp and lively, though it occasionally overpowers the singers.

Ashley Strain's effective set shows an upper-class bedroom with a view of the city in the background. Megs Lydon's costumes are alternately elegant or simple as needed for the characters.

"Gianni Schicchi" originally was presented as part of Puccini's 1918 work, "Il Trittico," which also included the one-acts "Suor Angelica" and "Il Tabarro." With an immensely likable hero and an entertaining story line, it's no wonder "Schicchi" became the favorite of audiences and critics.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or lmillegan@modbee.com.

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