The fate of Il trittico was sealed at its premiere in 1918, when the audience of the Metropolitan Opera in New York welcomed Il tabarro with courtesy applause, was unmoved by Suor Angelica and showed wild enthusiasm only for the third panel, Gianni Schicchi, a pattern that was repeated at its Italian premiere shortly thereafter. Despite Puccini’s vehement objections, Il trittico was soon dismembered, with Gianni Schicchi often paired to other one-acters such as Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusticana. The other two siblings were confined to the fringes of the standard repertoire. Critics and musicologists agreed with public opinion, hurling particularly vitriolic remarks at Puccini’s own favourite creature, Suor Angelica, accused of trite and manipulative sentimentalism. Thus even the Festival Puccini has seldom performed the work in its entirety, the last time being in 1974. The excellent result of the production under review may partially exculpate and redeem the Festival for such neglect.
With the exception of the conductor and some of the principals, most of the cast and crew were young people in their very first operatic experiences. Stage directors, sets and costume designers were the winners of a competition set up by the Festival to this purpose, with the idea of selecting only female artists. The majority of the singers have been taking part in the Accademia di Alto Perfezionamento of the Festival, an academy born in 2009 with the intent of preparing young singers to perform Puccini’s music. While the sets and costumes of the three operas were entrusted to Monica Bernardi and Lorena Marin respectively, the stage direction involved four different producers: Selene Farinelli (Il tabarro), Vittoria Lai and Giorgia Guerra for Suor Angelica, and Elena Marcelli for Gianni Schicchi. Finally, so as to emphasize its different nature, this production does not take place in the huge open theatre, but in the much smaller Auditorium Enrico Caruso, a venue hosting only about 300. The outcome was a much more intimate relationship between stage and audience, not easily obtained in the conventional 3.400 seat venue.
The river being the true protagonist of Il tabarro (thus wrote Puccini himself in a letter to the librettist), Ms. Bernardi congruously created sets where the Seine makes its presence known by a constant shimmering; the boat is squeezed between the water and a tall wall emphasizing the sense of claustrophobia innate to the drama. The same backdrop was efficaciously employed to create the convent in Suor Angelica: after all, cloister and claustrophobia share the same etymology. Gianni Schicchi to the contrary surprises for a completely different set, consisting of a red and white striped curtain, which however – in an authentic coup de théâtre- is opened during Rinuccio’s and Lauretta’s love duettino at the end of the opera to show a full size map of mediaeval Florence. With a presumably small budget, Ms. Bernardi, an architect in full career, has succeeded in providing an essential, functional, attractive and extremely effective frame where her stage directors could freely use their imagination, aided by Lorena Marin, who designed beautiful, detailed, rich costumes, totally adherent to the period in which they elected to set the opera. Il tabarro takes place – just as in the libretto -in the early twentieth century. Life in a cloister has not changed much over the centuries, and the only sign of period updating was the Princess’ costume, also recalling the 1910s. Schicchi is more difficult to update especially for an Italian audience, considering that the opera is firmly situated in a very specific moment, the first of September of 1299, as the Notary states in the libretto, not to mention that the protagonist was a real life person sentenced by Dante to live for eternity in hell. The common thread was the presence on the stage of a young boy portraying the dead children of Giorgetta and Angelica, and Gherardino in Schicchi. All three stage directors gave birth to real characters living with intensity their respective situations. The trickiest moment in Il trittico is undoubtedly the miracle scene in Suor Angelica: as devised by Puccini, with the apparition of an actress impersonating the Holy Virgin gently pushing the boy towards the agonizing mother, nowadays it would seriously risk inducing giggles in the audience. As in many other productions, the presence of a supernatural entity is suggested by the light, in this case filtering through the vents of the wall. The boy, who was sitting on a trunk with his back to the audience, slowly lies down next to his dead mother, who had been dragging herself across the stage trying to reach him: this solution achieved the intended result without being corny and mawkish.
Amarilli Nizza, who usually portrays all the three heroines, this time around did not appear in Schicchi. Gifted with subtle, nuanced fraseggio, she appears comfortable in Puccinian “conversational singing”. She is an intense interpreter and a compelling actress, moving on stage with naturalness and spontaneity. Her voice is not what I would call conventionally beautiful. The central register, between middle G and high G has a tight vibrato that many may find sour and unattractive, reminiscent of some Italian sopranos of yore. Her top, however, is superlative. “ È ben altro il mio sogno” was capped by a splendidly nailed high C, which she held forever. The same can be said for the high C in the duet with her husband, as well as for those (and there are plenty) in Suor Angelica. The ten high As on the phrase “Madonna salvami” sounded effortlessly glorious. It was refreshing to see and hear someone who can act the fervid, impassioned death scene without worrying whether her high notes will turn into screams. I only wish she had taken the final A of “Senza mamma” more piano. Alberto Mastromarino played the protagonist in both Tabarro and Schicchi. His baritone is very sturdy and reliable from top to bottom. He is also an effective actor; his natural bearing on stage, his menacing brooding looks in Tabarro, his swiftness and fleet-footedness in Schicchi makes one completely overlook his undeniable portliness. Laura Brioli was vocally more at ease as Frugola than as the Princess. Being a high mezzo-soprano, she had no problems with the high As of the Frugola song. As the Zia Principessa she was forced to invent a contralto that is alien to her vocal structure, thus lacking the authoritarian and frightening aspect of her character. A true contralto would have better fitted the particularly violent confrontation scene devised by Mss Guerra and Lai, sealed by a brutal Abbess that kicks a grieving Angelica, twisting her arm into signing the document. Tall, dark and handsome Mirko Matarazzo sang Luigi in Il tabarro (granted, a role that does not encourage tenors to engage in too much sophistication) with a powerful but coarse voice, his top loud but forced and poor in overtones. He encountered some problems in his aria and particularly in the duet with Giorgetta, the Andante mosso “Vorrei tenerti stretta”, where the endless series of high Gs sharp and As (with the fiendish acciaccatura on a B natural) sounded too strangled. Puccini wrote the roles of Luigi and Rinuccio for the same tenor, and it would have been interesting as well as philologically correct to cast just one artist in both. The Festival however chose the well-beaten path to assign Rinuccio to a light-lyric tenor. Ugo Tarquini, our Rinuccio, was totally immersed in the character, and his aria about the splendours of Florence was sung with verve and genuine commitment to the text. His top had ping, while his slightly acidic central register needs some fine-tuning. Mariacarla Seraponte delivered what is expected of a soprano singing Lauretta: a pretty voice with nice pianos, as well as a youthful fresh presence. The supporting roles were aptly cast. Although I would like to single out the delectably bossy Zita of Sandra Mellace, the ensemble work was exceptional, due in large part to conductor Bruno Nicoli. He led a translucent, colourful, well-paced performance, making the transition from tempo to tempo with a suppleness that seems eminently natural, skilfully balancing the witty elements of the opera with the tragic and lyrical.
This was the second smash hit in a row for the Festival Puccini. Let us wait for the final offering, a new production of Turandot, to the deliver the verdict on this purposefully reinvigorated sixtieth edition.