Il Trittico ranks as three of my favorite operas, each a small masterpiece, in sum, an evening of gems.
Puccini chose the Metropolitan Opera to serve up its world premiere production on December 14 of 1918, barely a month after the Armistice ended the Great War in Europe. This season’s revival celebrates Il Trittico’s 100th anniversary, just as we did for La Fanciulla del West, which had its world premiered at the Met in 1910. Big history, this!
Puccini did not originally intend the three short operas as a trio bound by a common theme. In fact, Il Tabarro was composed by the end of 1916 before the other two were conceived. As he worked on Suor Angelica and later Gianni Schicchi, both libretti authored by Giovacchino Forzano, Puccini came to trust his instinct to perform them in a single evening, allowing the audience to draw meaning from the contrasts of characters and plots.
But, alas, with its large cast, it proved expensive to perform. The Met’s next production of the complete Trittico was unveiled in 1975, though Il Tabarro and especially Gianni Schicchi have been performed at the Met over the years on the same bill as other operas, hence the lopsided performance stats.* For the record, I’m still not even remotely convinced that Gianni Schicchi works as curtain raiser for Strauss’s Salome or Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, or even, for that matter, Hansel and Gretel. The logic behind these artistic/administrative choices escapes me to this day.**
Puccini’s Il Tabarro is, in my mind certainly, among the very best of the so called verismo operas, the most popular and most frequently performed representatives of which are Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Il Tabarro is in every way a ‘modern opera’ for its time: darker, more sinister, more desperate, ultimately more heartbreaking. Passionate outbursts rise organically from the orchestral fabric, then, just as quickly, subside. Brief moments of relief are provided by self-defining business from the peripheral characters. Michele’s barge is anchored on the left bank of the Seine River in Paris; an orange sun sets and night falls as the story darkens. Baritone George Gagnidze is an unhappy and somber Michele, roused to anger and revenge when he discovers the identity of his wife’s lover. Amber Wagner is vocally sure as Giorgetta. Marcelo Álvarez is an assertive Luigi, in brilliant voice and strong stature. There are no winners in this love triangle.
The genius of Puccini also lies in his conception of the smaller roles: here it is the other barge workers, happy passers-by and a music vendor, each identified by nicknames or role definitions: their players are Tony Stevenson as Tinca (in English ‘Tench’) a perpetual drunk, Maurizio Muraro as Talpa (‘Mole’), MaryAnn McCormick as his wife Frugola (‘Ferret’), Brian Michael Moore as the Song Seller and Ashley Emerson and Yi Li as the Young Lovers. As well as in the ensuing other two operas, conductor Bertrand de Billy realizes Puccini’s wonderful score by weaving an intricate orchestral quilt. Il Tabarro is a great opera. The very first orchestral ripples tell all.
Suor Angelica, sporting an all female cast, is sometimes done alone by smaller local companies, but at the Met it always comes with its two more popular companions. Suor Angelica, like Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi,*** surrounds the principal characters by others defined by snippets of smaller stories, observations and interruptions. Such is the first half or so of Suor Angelica. But then Angelica’s aunt, the stern, overbearing Principessa, makes an unannounced visit.
Through her we learn that Angelica has disgraced her noble family by having a child out of wedlock, the punishment for which she has been removed from society, hidden away in a convent. Though Angelica has found peace and has earned the respect and love of her sisters by tending an herb garden full of flavor, cures, and other ultimately useful remedies, she keeps her secret closed within her, but deeply longs for news of her infant son.
La Principessa forcefully asserts that, since she is now in charge of the estate of Angelica’s late parents, she will give it all to Anna Viola, Angelica’s sister, who is getting united in holy wedlock. Oh, and by the way, Angelica, La Principessa says, almost as a casual aside, your son is dead.
The sound and scenic pictures of Suor Angelica are as serene as a convent should be, that is until La Principessa arrives. Kristine Opolais, as Angelica, is quiet and to some extent withdrawn, hiding the inner pain of uncertainty about her son’s health and whereabouts. Angelica’s emotional breakdown at the news of his passing and the heartbreaking solution for her anguish is riveting. Stephanie Blythe repeats from previous seasons her strong performance as the soul poisoning Principessa, MaryAnn McCormick is the gentle Monitor who structures the day, Maureen McKay is a delightful Sister Genovieffa. The final scene is very emotional.
Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is among the five absolutely best comic operas in Italian, and easily among my top ten in the standard repertory.**** It’s also more familiar so I won’t waste space praising its excellence. Stephanie Blythe, talk about artists who know how to delineate their characters, is a somber, greedy Zita, Maurizio Muraro (from Tabarro) is old Simone, Atalla Ayan is Rinuccio, the great Plácido Domingo sings the baritone role of Gianni Schicchi, Kristina Mkhitaryan is his daughter Lauretta, and so on. Schicchi is a joyful weeper, the final scene with the panorama of Firenze, the lovers Rinuccio and Lauretta at last facing a new life together, thanks to her father…it’s magical.
The Met’s production by Jack O’Brian, with sets designed by Douglas W. Schmidt and costumes designed by Jess Goldstein, was new in spring of 2007, General Manager Peter Gelb’s first season, and among the first of the HD telecasts. Hard evidence, I’d say, of just how successful a relatively realistic and emotionally evocative production can be. You don’t need gimmicks.
Don’t miss Il Trittico!! Three treats for the price of one!
Photos by: Ken Howard.
Review performance: Monday, November 29, 2018.
The three operas comprising Puccini’s Il Trittico are separated by intermissions, extended a bit by the changing of the wonderful but rather large sets. The running time of the evening’s performance is about four hours.
* The stats for my evening were: Il Tabarro, 82nd performance; Suor Angelica, 76th performance; Gianni Schicchi, 140th performance.
** Happily I’ve never had to shift musical/emotional gears at the Met from Gianni Schicchi to something completely different. In the winter of 1965, Karl Böhm chose Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan as the curtain raiser for my first Salome (with Birgit Nilsson). In the early ‘70s I remember the Saturday afternoon broadcast of Bluebeard’s Castle from afar, astonished that Gianni Schicchi was also done, but of my two Bluebeards in the house, the first was preceded by Schönberg’s Erwartung (with Jessye Norman) and for the second, the evening began with Tchiakovsky’s one act Iolanta with Anna Netrebko in 2015. The only curtain raiser for Hansel and Gretel in my past was a throwaway light ballet, something about a fan, in December, 1967, when the Merrill/O’Hearn production was brand new (Teresa Stratas was Gretel).
***This is true of all of the Puccini operas in the standard repertory. Part of his genius is to paint in brief musical strokes their personalities, moods, predilictions, etc.
**** My top five Italian comedies? Gianni Schicchi, of course, just said that above. But also Verdi’s Falstaff, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale, and Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Il Comte Ory, which is in French, but Rossini wrote the music. Cenerentola has more soul than Barbiere and Comte Ory overflows with joy.
The other five, to get the ten top comedies: of course Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, incredible, just incredible, as is Cosí fan tutte, but then we have to add Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Every bit worth the effort to embrace these!
What are your favorite comic operas?