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Il Trittico

A vibrant production of Puccini’s triptych
Opera Australia
by
ABR Arts 04 July 2024

Il Trittico

A vibrant production of Puccini’s triptych
Opera Australia
by
ABR Arts 04 July 2024
Anthony Mackey as Pinellino, Tristan Entwistle as Guccio, Tom Hamilton as Amantio di Nicolao, Tomas Dalton as Rinuccio, Richard Anderson as Simone, Angela Hogan as La Ciesca, Alexander Hargreaves as Marco, David Parkin as Betto di Signa, Jane Ede as Nella, Kanen Breen as Gherardo, Adele Johnston as Zita and Simon Meadows as Gianni Schicchi in Gianni Schicchi (photograph by Keith Saunders)
Anthony Mackey as Pinellino, Tristan Entwistle as Guccio, Tom Hamilton as Amantio di Nicolao, Tomas Dalton as Rinuccio, Richard Anderson as Simone, Angela Hogan as La Ciesca, Alexander Hargreaves as Marco, David Parkin as Betto di Signa, Jane Ede as Nella, Kanen Breen as Gherardo, Adele Johnston as Zita and Simon Meadows as Gianni Schicchi in Gianni Schicchi (photograph by Keith Saunders)

This year marks the centenary of Giacomo Puccini’s sudden death in Brussels while being treated for throat cancer. He was the most famous and celebrated living opera composer. However, Puccini’s posthumous reputation suffered in the latter half of the twentieth century; an infamous comment by renowned musicologist Joseph Kerman in 1952 describing Tosca as ‘a shabby little shocker’, was representative of much of academia’s attitude during this time. Puccini’s operas never lost their immense popularity, and recent decades have seen a profound reappraisal of Puccini’s genius as a musical dramatist.

Puccini first considered the idea of writing three one-act operas in 1904, probably inspired by the immense success of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892). Puccini approached his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, about the possibility of an evening of contrasting works. The idea greatly appealed to Puccini, but it met with determined opposition from Ricordi, who wanted another full-length opera from him.

Undaunted, Puccini went ahead, starting on Il Tabarro, with Giuseppe Adami as his librettist. The idea had occurred to him after seeing a one-act play in Paris in 1912: La Houppelande (‘The Cloak’) by Didier Gold. Puccini described the play as follows:

The subject is apache [gangsterish] in all its meanings, almost, and even without the almost, Grand Guignol. But it makes no difference. It pleases me and strikes me as highly effective. But this red stain needs something different to contrast with it: and it is this that I am looking for: something that will have some elevation to it and an opportunity to write music that will take wing.

With typical thoroughness, he researched the kind of language that Parisian bargemen might use. As his enthusiasm for the subject grew, he began to regret that it would not be a full-length work. When he completed the opera at the end of 1916, he still didn’t know what the companion pieces would be.

For the two other subjects, advice was sought from such disparate figures as George Bernard Shaw and Sasha Guitry, Adami even trawling through the works of one of Puccini’s favorite authors, Charles Dickens. The subjects finally emerging would become Suor Angelica, with a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano. The second idea gave birth to the comedy, Gianni Schicchi; the title figure is a Florentine rogue mentioned in Dante’s Inferno. Forzano again provided the libretto.

 Sian Sharp as The Monitor and Opera Australia Chorus in Suor Angelica (photograph by Keith Saunders) Sian Sharp as The Monitor and Opera Australia Chorus in Suor Angelica (photograph by Keith Saunders)

Suor Angelica was completed in September 1917, Gianni Schicci in April 1918. Puccini came up with the title of the complete three-part work with assistance from friends, though a triptych usually suggests a picture divided into three thematically linked sections. The three operas in Il Trittico have no obvious thematic connection, apart from the fact that they each deal with death in some way.

Puccini intended the première for Rome, but the war put paid to that. However, the New York Metropolitan Opera, which had premièred La fanciulla del west in 1910, offered to stage it, and it opened on 14 December 1918. Puccini was unable to travel to New York, missing a première of one of his works for the first time. It was Gianni Schicci that found the most favour; one critic wrote: ‘If Puccini had written nothing else, Gianni Schicci would give him fame because of its staccato, mirthful, brilliant music and happy characterization’. Some contemporary commentators had long regarded Puccini as a spent force.  

Many saw in the comedy a revival of the spirit of the opere buffa works of Gioachino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti – a modern version of this characteristically Italian genre. Others compared it to Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff. Puccini, like Verdi, turned to comedy late in life. Within a few years, Gianni Schicci was being widely staged. Italian critics hailed the work as a ‘national masterpiece, destined joyously to gladden the restless spirits of the twentieth century’, and acidly rejoiced in Puccini’s return to an Italian subject after ‘so many useless Japanese, American, Parisian digressions’ (L’idea nazionale, 13 January 1919).

It was in Vienna, largely due to Lotte Lehmann’s performance in the title role, that Suor Angelica began to attract more success; this was Puccini’s favorite of the three works. Suor Angelica was often praised for its unusual and effective conception, but less effusively for its music, while Il Tabarro was acknowledged as having have moments of great power and an effectively dark, predominantly minor-key brooding atmosphere, often reminiscent of Tosca. Il Tabarro is Puccini’s only true verismo opera, replete with characters struggling with poverty and social injustice at the bottom rungs of society, beset by infidelity and jealousy, and culminating in a gruesome murder on stage. There are striking Marxist elements in Adami’s adaptation of the source play, fully encouraged by Puccini and underpinned by his sombre, powerful music.

The complete trio of operas is not staged often; generally, Il Tabarro or Suor Angelica is paired with Gianni Schicci, as a double bill. As the first commissioned work by the new artistic director, Jo Davies, Opera Australia has taken the fascinating step of engaging three different directors for each opera, offering the audience a potentially wider visual and dramatic experience. The striking stage settings and vivid costumes, by Michael Hankin, contribute greatly to the success of the evening. Of course, three operas require an unusually large number of solo roles, but many of the singers appear in two, or even all three, moving from principal to supporting roles. It is good to see several full-time chorus members as soloists.

Viktor Antipenko as Luigi and Simon Meadows as Michele in Il Tabarro (photograph by Keith Saunders)Viktor Antipenko as Luigi and Simon Meadows as Michele in Il Tabarro (photograph by Keith Saunders)

Constantine Costi directs a taut and intense Tabarro. The setting on a barge moored on the Seine is bleak and as Michele, the barge owner, baritone Simon Meadows (recently heard as Enrico in Melbourne Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor), delivers a powerful account of the character’s major aria, ‘Nulla, silenzio’ (‘Nothing, silence’), just before the violent denouement. His voice has an attractive quality, perhaps lacking some of the true Italian baritonal darkness and warmth for the role; it is nevertheless an effective portrayal. Viktor Antipenko (Luigi) gave a powerful rendition of the character’s poignant cry against poverty and deprivation in ‘Hai ben raggione; meglio non pensare’ (‘Quite right you are. Tis vain for us to ponder’), displaying a strong tenor voice with a gleaming tone and a secure top.

Olivia Cranwell (Georgetta) inhabited the character’s deep unhappiness and despair at the recent death of her child, her frustration with her much older husband, Michele, and her attraction to Luigi. This is a superb voice, with a steely, attractive quality which suits the character’s anguish, the voice soaring effortlessly . Other crucial roles are sung by Angela Hogan as Frugola, and Richard Anderson as Talpa, both vocally outstanding as these sad, downtrodden figures. The set effectively evokes a run-down barge with muted colours and practical playing spaces, well suiting the bleak atmosphere of the work, while the costumes suggest an undefined working-class postwar Paris, displaying a wide range of well-worn, discarded fashions.

Imara Savage directs Suor Angelica with the title role sung by Lauren Fagan, and other major roles sung by Angela Hogan and Adele Johnson. Objections to what is perceived as the opera’s religiosity have dogged the work, countered at the time by Puccini’s comment that ‘the story is really one of passion and it’s only the environment which is religious’. The work is set in the seventeenth century, when convents were frequently used by wealthy families as penitentiaries for their errant daughters; Angelica is forced into the convent by her family after giving birth to a child out of wedlock. Puccini’s anti-clerical views are apparent throughout the opera, in a similar way to Tosca.

The most powerful and central scene in the opera – the confrontation between Angelica and her aunt, the Princess – was expertly performed by Fagan and Hogan, ratcheting up the emotion, which is then further heightened in Angelica’s almost unbearably beautiful aria addressed to her dead child, ‘Senza mamma, o bimbo, tu sei morto’ (‘Without thy mother, Dearest, thou didst die!’). Here, the plangent beauty of Fagan’s voice was displayed, ending with an exquisite floating pianissimo high A. Hogan was formidably convincing as the unbending aristocrat, stiffly determined to eject Angelica from the family. The large cast of nuns displayed a wide range of strong, attractive voices. The opera opened in a pleasant open space with a herb garden in the centre, the darker, prison-like convent atmosphere gradually suggested by Verity Hampson’s effective lighting.  

Shaun Rennie directs Gianni Schicci with aplomb and flair. Simon Meadows sings the title role, Stacey Alleume his daughter, Lauretta, and Tomas Dalton her lover, Rinuccio, supported by a large array of Opera Australia stalwarts, including Kanen Breen, Jane Ede, David Parkin, Alexander Hargreaves, and Clifford Plumpton. Of course, everyone waits for what may be the most performed Italian opera aria, ‘O mio babbino caro’ (‘O my beloved daddy’), in which Lauretta pleads with her father, Gianni, to facilitate the plot. Alleume did not disappoint, the silvery quality of her voice and her expressive musicality perfect for this brief gem sung as she is framed by a view of Florence through an upstairs window. Another delightful moment was provided by Tomas Dalton in his ebullient paean to Florence, ‘Firenze è come un albero fiorito’ (‘Florence is like a flowering tree’), based on a Tuscan folk song and cataloguing all the delights and achievements of the city.

Meadows’s Schicci effectively dominated proceedings, impersonating the deceased Buoso Donati with faltering voice, as well as powerfully threatening the family when they resist his new allocation of assets, primarily, of course, to himself. The wonderfully macabre humour of Puccini’s brilliant gem, with its dodgy morality, was given full rein in Rennie’s slick production; the striking set evoking Italy in the postwar years, while the wide array of colorful costumes added visual spice to the action: a sparkling climax to the evening. There was no sense of any skimping on sets and costumes, as has been the case with some of Opera Australia’s productions this year.

Musical standards throughout were excellent, due primarily to the expressive and idiomatic conducting of Lidiya Yankovskaya, who brought out the myriad colours and textures of Puccini’s brilliant Il Trittico score, the fine Opera Australia orchestra revealing the development in Puccini’s use of orchestration, which would be cut short with the unfinished Turandot a few years later. Il Trittico is, by any definition, an ensemble opera par excellence, but the individual performances of the three sopranos – Olivia Cranwell, Lauren Fagan, and Stacey Alleaume – will linger long in the memory.

Credit is due to Opera Australia for staging the complete work and for casting all but one of the roles with Australian singers. There is an impressive array of Australian operatic talent available, and it is gratifying to hear singers emerging who have long deserved the opportunity. It is of vital importance for the continued viability of opera in Australia that the national company strikes a fair and pragmatic balance in terms of local and overseas casting while maintaining and even exceeding the high standards achieved in many previous opera seasons.


 

Il Trittico (Opera Australia) continues at the Sydney Opera House until 19 July 2024. Performance attended: 3 July.

Comment (1)

  • The set and costume design need to be addressed. The set design for Suor Angelica was mediocre at best. The final scene was unconvincing
    Posted by Terri lowe
    06 July 2024

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