Puccini : Il TritticoLondres, Royal Opera House, 2011 (Audio)
Director: A. Pappano
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After the summer festival season closed with Saturday’s Last Night of the Proms, there was a definite ‘new term’ atmosphere last night as the 2011-12 season kicked off at Covent Garden. There was a frisson of excitement as punters got their first glimpse of the redesigned Floral Hall bar, with even Simon Keenlyside eagerly nipping up to take a look at the Art Deco installation. Nervous new House attendants, freshly scrubbed, were being helped to identify seat locations, thanks to experienced patrons, and the builders have knocked through between box office and cloakroom to hopefully allow for a less congested getaway at the end. There was also the small matter of a production which was keenly anticipated. This season, with no concert performance or dull revival to start things off (with the ‘A’ team away on tour duty), we began with not one, but two new productions, Richard Jones offering a new Il tabarro and Suor Angelica to join his previously seen Gianni Schicchi to complete the first Il trittico at Covent Garden since 1965. Presenting Puccini’s triptych is a massive challenge for any company, so what better way to launch the season in style?
Each opera has a different designer, but Jones places each in a post-war 1950s setting, giving the trilogy a cohesion I hadn’t expected. There were a few trademark Jones fingerprints – floral wallpaper, a spot of wall-hugging, awkward dancing – but, by and large, these were pretty straight productions, allowing the drama to speak clearly. Il tabarro (‘The Cloak’), set designed by Ultz, seemed strongly influenced by film noir, suiting the grand guignol plot concerning Michele, the barge-owner, who discovers his wife’s love for Luigi, one of his stevedores. Everything about the set is grimy and brooding, even the canal is black, as bleak walls overlook the Seine, with only a narrow alleyway offering an exit for shady characters skulking past. Eva-Maria Westbroek, who made her Royal Opera debut in 2006 as Katerina Ismailova in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, here plays Giorgetta, another desperate woman in an unhappy marriage, a vivid portrayal, her dramatic intensity finally released in passionate duet with Aleksandrs Antonenko’s sweaty, Marlon Brando-esque Luigi. Antonenko was making his House debut, a brief role before the more demanding Otello at the end of the season. His is an exciting tenor with a bright steely sound, a tad stentorian and ungainly, but it suited Luigi’s macho character. Westbroek matched him vocally, her fearless attack suited to Puccini’s wilder heroines.
The bleakness is lightened occasionally, Jones replacing the organ-grinder who provides the music for Giorgetta’s dancing with Il Tinca (later with Luigi) with a wind-up gramophone; and Puccini self-references a simple phrase from La bohème to accompany the ballad singer (Ji-Min Park) in his latest song about Mimì.
Lucio Gallo rather under-played Michele, whose dark suspicions merely appeared like mild indifference until his great monologue ‘Nulla… silenzio’ where Michele finally puts two and two together to produce a mathematically correct answer. Vocally, Gallo here reminded me of Piero Cappuccilli, with a certain nobility and pain in his beautiful phrasing, if not always the drama required. Perhaps playing him with more reserve than usual heightens the character’s sudden violent outburst as he murders Luigi, wrapping the body in his cloak to reveal to the horrified Giorgetta at the opera’s gripping conclusion.
Where Jones opens Il tabarro with a freeze-frame, he uses one again in Suor Angelica, but this time at the close. To my mind, Angelica is the toughest opera of the trilogy to bring off, due to the mawkish plot, concerning the young nun who discovers the illegitimate child she was separated from has died and so commits suicide. Anja Harteros pulled out of the production after the first rehearsal (health reasons being ‘officially’ cited), leading to Ermonela Jaho making her role debut. Jones chooses not to set the opera in the convent gardens, where Sister Angelica tends the plants and creates herbal remedies, but in a children’s infirmary (set designs by Miriam Buether), where she is the chief pharmacist, crushing her drugs with a pestle at her desk. The nuns tend the bed-bound infants in between choir practice, prayers and gossip, which largely surround Angelica and her wish to hear from her family again. When a visitor for her finally arrives, it’s her aunt with a demand to sign away her dead parents’ property, before revealing the news of the death of Angelica’s infant son. The statuesque Anna Larsson made for a terrifying Princess, towering over Jaho’s diminutive Angelica, looking for all the world like Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus. After an initially shaky opening phrase, Jaho settled into the role securely, dramatic fervour matched by intense singing, especially of her great aria ‘Senza mamma’, where she floated the top note at the end with ethereal beauty. She portrayed Angelica’s breakdown and desperation vividly, leading to her fatal overdose of tablets.
The libretto asks for a vision of the redemptive Virgin Mary accompanying a blond child – Angelica’s son – dressed in white, who steps towards his mother as she dies. Jones circumvents this brilliantly in a dénouement which despite being highly predictable is yet both deeply touching and dramatically far more credible, ending with the freeze frame of the horrified nuns’ attempts at shielding the eyes of the children from events. A far more convincing and moving end than I had anticipated, leaving one moist-eyed critic snuffling and quietly applauding Jones’ direction and Jaho’s touching performance.
Puccini shrewdly completes his trilogy with a witty farce to lift the mood and ensure any tears left at the end of a long evening are ones of laughter. Gianni Schicchi, based on an incident mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy, has been seen in Jones’ production twice, before at Covent Garden, paired with Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole. Here, set in its proper context, its humour seemed to come off even more successfully, acting as a counter to the sensational drama and emotion of the earlier two operas. The shabby apartment of John Macfarlane’s designs find Buoso Donati at death’s door, surrounded by relatives more concerned with the contents of his will than for the state of his health. Floorboards are raised and the attic is looted in farcical attempts to locate the will which inspire genuine laughter. Once the will is found, the awful truth – old Buoso has left everything to the local monastery – is realised, leading to the reluctant employment of wily Gianni Schicchi to get a new will written. Despite attempts to bribe Schicchi so each gets the prize plums – Donati’s house, the mule and the mills at Signa – none of the relatives succeeds as Schicchi, impersonating the dying Donati, pockets them for himself, the relatives unable to press complaints or else their complicity in the highly illegal actions would be revealed.
Lucio Gallo was, surprisingly, more at home in farcical territory than the impassioned drama of Il tabarro, his wheeler-dealer Schicchi sharply portrayed, merciless in his exploitation of Donati’s relatives, but touchingly won over by his daughter Lauretta’s appeals for him to help. He revelled in the opportunity for funny voices in pretending to be the ailing Buoso, but was more darkly threatening than traditional buffo baritones towards the family when they seemed on the point of blowing his cover.
Ekaterina Siurina sang the (in)famous ‘O mio babbino caro’ with refreshing simplicity, coyly suggesting she’d throw herself into the Arno if her father refuses to aid the family of her beloved Rinuccio, sung by the Sardinian tenor Francesco Demuro, marking another important House debut for the evening. Demuro sang Rinuccio’s paean to Florence with great style and warmth, until a throaty conclusion. He has an easy stage presence and partnered Siurina well. Among the brilliantly characterized relatives and hangers-on, Elena Zilio, who had also sung the Monitress in Suor Angelica, stood out for her imperious manner and comic timing, ably supported by Gwynne Howell’s sonorous Simone. Jeremy White’s Betto di Signa also came off well, after his touching Talpa in Il tabarro, as did Alan Oke’s Gherardo, a happier soul than the drunken, jealous Tinca from earlier in the evening. The choreography is spot on, Sarah Fahie responsible for reviving Lucy Burge’s original work, giving a fine sense of both vocal and physical ensemble.
Masterminding events in the pit, Antonio Pappano brought his customary panache to the orchestra, adding vital drama to Il tabarro and rich string sound to the conclusion of Suor Angelica. The orchestra is almost an extra character in Gianni Schicchi, its commentary on the characters that of a formidable gossip, sharply accented woodwind contributions much in evidence.
Next to the giant wardrobe at the end stands a bust of old Dante himself, against which Schicchi leans as he delivers his final spoken appeal to the audience, pleading ‘extenuating circumstances’. No such pleading needs to be made for these three productions, which offer a splendid opening to the season and one which sets high expectations for what is to follow.
Edited from Opera Britannia (Mark Pullinger)