Two new productions (Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica) and one revival from 2012 (Gianni Schicchi) comprise this outing at Holland Park of Puccini’s three one-act operas, collectively known as Il trittico (The Triptych).
The trilogy’s opening piece, Il tabarro (The Cloak), directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, is one of the prime exemplars of the Verismo genre. Set on a working barge on the Seine (one that inhabits virtually all of the considerable width of the stage at Holland Park), it depicts the suffocating life of the unfulfilled, forced into a claustrophobic co-existence. The concomitant squalor, violence, and sordid passion belong to a grimy, grey world that is light years away from the technicolour Paris of the Bohemians. A bundle of laughs it ain’t. Underpinning and reinforcing this is Puccini’s glorious soundscape, in which the orchestra becomes the river, the city and the people that populate it. As with La fanciulla del West, its role in establishing time and place is pivotal. It was a shame, then, that Stuart Stratford (conducting all three operas) was unable to marshal the City of London Sinfonia to better effect. For much of the performance the playing was lacklustre when below forte, and low in energy. The rise and fall of the score’s opening bars (peppered with the sound effects of the Seine’s bustle) mirror the ebb and flow of the water, and introduce us to life on the river. The effect should be magical. Instead, it was untidy, lacking in presence and fell flat. As the work unfolded, dramatic tension was frequently dissipated by tempo changes that didn’t quite come off and pauses that were held fractionally too long.
As Michele, Stephen Gadd, managed to overcome these obstacles with immense aplomb. Although his baritone voice is perhaps a size smaller than is ideal for this role, he used his considerable resources intelligently, singing beautifully with rock-solid tone throughout. Michele is an unsympathetic character yet Gadd manages to garner sympathy for him, as the barge-owner is consumed by despair at his irreversible alienation from his younger wife. As he makes one last, doomed attempt to rescue what he once had with Giorgetta, Gadd’s repeated entreaties of ‘Resta vicino a me’ were utterly pathetic in the best possible way. The only thing he lacked was a cloak ample enough to avoid making a nonsense of the opera’s dénouement.
Anne Sophie Duprels gave a committed performance as Giorgetta. Possessing an attractive lyric soprano (though one that could use a little more heft in this role), she was not always fully in control vocally, and struggled at times to ride the orchestra at full throttle. Nevertheless she was a febrile presence, and completely convincing dramatically. Jeff Gwaltney’s Luigi (the stevedore with whom Giorgetta betrays Michele) has an appealing Italianate timbre but is another singer too easily covered by the orchestra when Puccini steps on the gas. (Yes, I know – I have a bee in my bonnet on this issue. It’s just that, in Puccini, the contest between voice and orchestra really does need to be a more or less equal one at the big climactic moments.) Gwaltney and Ms Duprels do a fine job of conveying the nature of their messy relationship. No grand, doomed love affair – just a grubby, desperate fumble, born of desperation and boredom.
One of the joys of all three of the operas in Il trittico is the colourful array of minor characters on display. In Il tabarro, they are uniformly excellent. Particularly worthy of note is the veteran, scene-stealing Sarah Pring as La Frugola, and, as Soprano Amante, Johane Ansell, a young singer whose lovely voice promises much for the future. (An opinion further reinforced by her performance later in the evening as Suor Genovieffa in Suor Angelica.)
If the first third of the evening was more of a dud than it should have been, the show was spectacularly redeemed by the remaining two components of the trilogy: Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Both were spectacularly good, rendering even more of a mystery the failure of Il tabarro to fire.
In Oliver Platt’s production, Suor Angelica is updated three hundred years to the middle of the twentieth century, with no adverse effect – convent life was still a time-honoured penance for unmarried motherhood. Neal Irish makes effective use of trestle tables, wicker baskets, jugs, and no end of sheets to create the convent’s laundry in which the action takes place. It is a world in which the innocence and girlishness of the young novices is often harshly – and sometimes brutally – dealt with by those overseeing them. (I don’t know much about nuns but I can tell you this: the one in black is a real bitch.)
Much of the opera is about the minutiae of daily convent life, until the arrival of a visitor who is about to turn the world of the earnest and sincere Angelica upside down. As La Zia Principessa, Angelica’s implacable, severely-suited aunt, Rosalind Plowright provided another veteran masterclass to the younger generation of singers. Though showing understandable signs of wear, the voice is still big and opulent, and her stage-presence commanding.
And now for a confession. In over forty years of opera-going, I have never shed a tear. Not once. Not when Violetta dies, not when the Countess forgives Almaviva, not even when I accidentally heard Andrea Bocelli’s Verdi CD. No doubt, it points to something unwholesome and not quite right about me, but there you have it – choking up is not in my personality. Until a couple of nights ago, that is. I should have sensed that something was brewing from the startling guttural roar Anne Sophie Duprels emitted as Angelica hurled herself at La Zia Principessa, on learning of the fate of the son she has never seen. From the gloriously sung ‘Senza mamma’ to the end of the opera, she had me right on the brink. Her portrayal of Angelica’s death was so raw that it was, at times, too hard to watch. In the space of a couple of hours she had made the transition from merely good to stellar, and it was wonderful to experience. The audience knew it too, and rewarded her with a deafening ovation. The orchestra had also found its feet, and by now Puccini was sounding like, well … Puccini.
By the time the metaphorical curtain went up on Gianni Schicchi, it was becoming rather chilly thanks to the gusting wind in Holland Park on an evening that felt more like March than June. It was going to take something special to hold the attention, and Oliver Platt’s revival of Martin Lloyd-Evans’ 2012 production (another relocation to the twentieth century) provided just that. The story of the Donati family’s increasingly desperate attempts to subvert the legal process and overturn to their own advantage the terms of their relative’s will is an outstanding example of ensemble comedy, underpinned by some superb singing and finely detailed playing from the orchestra.
At its heart is Richard Burkhard’s portrayal of the eponymous father, fixer and con-man. With his gorgeous baritone voice and natural flair for comedic timing, this is an assumption of the role that would be at home in any of the leading opera houses. Not that Burkhard has the monopoly on comedic timing. Both collectively and through strongly-delineated character acting, the whole ensemble gels beautifully in a succession of hilarious set pieces that swing wildly between the balletic and the madcap. By the final bars, it looks as though a bomb has gone off in a paper factory. Everyone pulls their weight, especially, once again the always watchable Sarah Pring, constantly thwarted in her endeavours, as Zita, to herd her money-grubbing family in the direction she wants them to go.
The role of Lauretta, Gianni Schicchi’s daughter, seems a thankless one to me. Apart from a few lines, she has to sing one of the operas best known and most loved arias, even by those who are not opera afficianados. Talk about a hiding to nothing. Undaunted, the young soprano, Anna Patalong, delivered a golden ‘O mio babbino caro’, and is clearly one to watch for the future. As her lover, Rinuccio, James Edwards, has an attractive lyric tenor sound, and was suitably dashing in his military uniform. However, he found the tessitura of ‘Firenze è come un albero fiorito’, Rinuccio’s paean of praise to the city of Florence, something of a trial.
This is an evening that comes highly recommended. If the problems that beset Il tabarro can be overcome, it probably merits five stars. As it is …
Il tabarro – 3 stars
Suor Angelica – 4.5 stars
Gianni Schicchi – 5 stars
(Photos : Robert Workman)