The three, fifty-odd minute apiece, one-act operas that comprise Puccini’s musical triptych – written sequentially during the latter stages of the First World War – all, one way or another, break new ground for the ageing composer. The first, Il tabarro, is Puccini’s only exercise in dictionary-definition verismo – contemporary setting, proletarian characters – and depicts a mountingly oppressive vision of emotional, physical and psychological deprivation amongst low-lifers, leading to a shocking, grand guignol-derived dénouement. The second, Suor Angelica, has always had a bad press and been held in relative critical contempt: but, in truth, its potentially saccharine and sensationalist story of a nun committing suicide in order to be reunited in the hereafter – by no less than the Virgin Mary – with her dead, illegitimate son is treated with such economy of means, concentration of purpose and powerfully affecting music, that Puccini was surely justified in regarding it as his finest work to date. And the third, Gianni Schicchi, is everybody who doesn’t like Puccini’s favourite Puccini opera, the composer’s only comedy, and the only work in the post-Rossinian Italian repertory that can be mentioned in the same breath as Verdi’s Falstaff.
Premiered as Il trittico at the Metropolitan Opera House in December 1918, the work met with only mixed critical fortune, though Schicchi was always, from the very start, exempt from whatever strictures were applied to the whole, and within a couple of years had taken on a repertory life of its own. Covent Garden premiered the whole work locally in 1920, but – behind Puccini’s back, much to his voluble displeasure – secured permission from Ricordi, his publisher, to drop Suor Angelica after only two performances. (Apropos, albeit purely by the way, the printed programme contains a prize gem from a “Musicologist” informing us that “Puccini had every intention that the three works should be performed together; after all, he had conceived them not just as a triple bill, but specifically as a “triptych”, and triptychs are rarely dismembered”. Well, no, actually. Fact: over 85% of all known or documented triptychs/polyptychs were indeed dismembered. Perhaps musicologists should stick to music and leave the art history to art historians.) Thereafter, excepting the complete performance given in 1965 (the piece’s first ROH outing in 45 years) the house preferred to perform “Il dittico”, which is how I saw it in 1976, with Julia Varady positively eating the stage alive as Giorgetta in Il tabarro, and the great Sesto Bruscantini, comic genius personified, as Schicchi. Indeed, I’d never even seen Suor Angelica on stage at all before the new production by Richard Jones – here receiving its first revival – was mounted in 2011, under Pappano (and preserved on film).
Jones’ stagings – here in the hands of revival directors, though he himself is in the house, presumably buried in Boris Godunov – remain in good shape, and have their own inner logic and integrity. But with the notable exception of Il tabarro, I won’t pretend to care for his temporal and spatial tinkerings that shift Suor Angelica from a late C17th Sienese nunnery exterior to a claustrophobic mid-C20th hospital interior, and dump poor old Schicchi – set, with elaborate textual and visual precision much referenced in the libretto, on 1st September 1299 – into the 1950s. Comedy in particular needs to be carefully grounded, and the idea that this rapacious rabble of relatives would make so many en passant references to Arnolfo di Cambio, Giotto, the Medici, their overwhelming desire to inherit – of all things – a mule, and be cowed into silence by the thought of having one’s hand cut off for bearing false witness, is beyond stupid when played out in a modernised setting like this (not to mention the obligatory hideous wallpaper). And you don’t have to profess any formal belief in the supernatural, or the possibility of divine intervention, to find Jones’ altered ending to Suor Angelica reductively wrong-headed. I don’t care if he himself doesn’t believe in miracles or divine forgiveness – God knows I don’t – but it’s the essence of what the opera’s about, and the director’s own beliefs are neither here nor there: what matters is that Puccini did believe in them, and wrote them into his score, which is meant to show us the possibility of redemption even in the face of what appear to be spiritually unforgiveable sins, culminating in the worst of the lot, suicide. Given that the composer – effectively fatherless and raised by his mother and five elder sisters – took his completed work to the closed-order convent of which the eldest, Iginia, was the Mother Superior in order to see if its highly controversial contents might just about pass muster theologically (only for the lot of them to be utterly overwhelmed by emotion), we should surely see the miracle happen. Instead of which we get some nonsense with one of the hospital’s sick children, and Angelica is neither reunited with her son, nor redeemed by divine grace: she’s just a mentally addled victim of a drug-overdose. Really? Why is there never a dead cat around to throw at the stage when you need one?
Puccini is reported to have observed that the whole triptych had, much to his surprise, turned out to be longer than the Transatlantic cable: and I’ve no doubt that there’s never been a complete outing of the entire work where the three operas were equally successful, either as stagings or in terms of their vocal performance, whether or not the whole thing was mounted together as new – as at the Met in 2007, in Jack O’Brien’s staggering show – or, as here in London, compiled across different seasons and original couplings. This was certainly true in 2011, and is, rather unfortunately, even more so this time round, because, in a nutshell, Il tabarro is a write-off (ironic, considering that it’s the best staging of the three by far), Suor Angelica a triumph (despite my animadversions above), and Gianni Schicchi has its moments, but not enough of them. Last time out, Il tabarro had Eva-Maria Westbroek and Aleksandrs Antonenko as the illicit lovers Giorgetta and Luigi, neither of them remotely idiomatic, any more than they were in the recent Cavalleria rusticana, but both at least vocally beefy enough to ride the sometimes savage orchestral underpinning. This time, we have Patricia Racette – subbing for an indisposed Martina Serafin – and Carl Tanner. Lucio Gallo sang Michele, the cuckolded older husband, in 2011 and repeats the role now. Alas, it’s downhill all the way. Racette is the best of the principals, but really doesn’t have either the spinto force or spin the role requires; Tanner’s shrivelled voice is barely to be heard above the band at any point, so that his mini-Marxist manifesto about the cruelty of the labourer’s lot went for nothing, as did, even more damagingly, the subsequent “Siren Song to the City Life” duet which follows it. As for poor Lucio Gallo, the intervening years have not been kind, and a top that was effortful in 2011 is now effectively non-existent, so that the climax of the opera – the killing of Luigi and the revelation of his body to Giorgetta – is completely undone by his inability either to reach or sustain the two G naturals that are simply no longer available to him. And though it’s not his fault, it somehow seemed symptomatic of the performance as a whole that at the end, as he sits on the roof of his péniche lighting his pipe – thereby unwittingly giving Giorgetta’s visual signal for Luigi to come aboard for some extra-marital activity – match after match refused to ignite (the same thing happened to Gwynne Howells in Schicchi, trying to light the newly-deceased Buoso’s candles). Where do the ROH props people keep them in between times? In a bucket of water on Health and Safety grounds?
The smaller roles in Il tabarro were sung with far too much wobble and bluster evident, though I exempt David Junghoon Kim’s firm Song Seller and the nice pairing of Lauren Fagan and Luis Gomes as two passing lovers. Stage/pit ensemble left rather a lot to be desired, and altogether Nicola Luisotti’s conducting lacked both precision and power when needed, realising none of the elemental force Pappano unleashed in 2011. Happily, his and the orchestra’s grasp of Suor Angelica proved stronger. And here at last we had an authentic star-turn to contend with, that of Ermonela Jaho, returning to the role that effectively kick-started her international career when she filled in for (the first of o-so-very-many no-shows by) Anja Harteros. She’s had a good think about her character in the interim, and now sings much of it noticeably more softly, with some ravishing pianissimi (albeit not always perfectly evenly sustained in terms of either volume or vibrato, such as the one which ends “Senza mamma”.) Always a nervy, intense performer – the curtain call just this side of comic caricature, with its prolonged, totteringly “where-am-I?” exhaustion – she is wonderful here, and in best vocal estate to boot, not so much fuller of sound than before as more secure and confident in its production. Her double act with Anna Larsson’s Zia Principessa is astonishing to behold – Larsson must be well over six feet tall, wears heels, and towers so far over Jaho that she looks like some predatory alien life form sizing up lunch – which generates precisely the dramatic tension so woefully lacking in Il tabarro. Larsson’s tone is spreading rather too much these days to be considered ideal – Stephanie Blythe at the Met was absolutely sensational in this respect – but is so striking in the role that perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much (though it does, or at least ought to: it’s a measure of just what an extraordinary stage animal Larsson is that she can get away with it, even with me).
Amongst the army of other singing nuns – seventeen, I reckon – the Monitress of Elena Zilio stood out (if her registers are going their separate ways, they’re doing so in flamboyantly purposeful and distinctive style), and I liked Lauren Fagan’s Sister Genovieffa. Indeed, I found myself wishing most earnestly that the latter had been entrusted with Lauretta in the following work, since I can’t say that Susanna Hurrell made much of an impression, a voice and vocal manner best described as accurate enough, as in “O mio babbino caro”, but quite without distinction. I didn’t think any better of the tenor singing Rinuccio either, Paolo Fanale, who like every other exponent of the role I’ve heard in this staging – Franceso Demuro, Stephen Costello – hasn’t been able to sing “Firenze è come un albero fiorito” properly (it’s a hard, high sing, yes, but like all Puccini, is over before it’s begun and shouldn’t present young singers with any problems). That leaves amongst the principals Lucio Gallo, who I persist in thinking almost wholly miscast in the title role, though in fact he sings it with greater ease and precision than he does Michele, and could, I suppose, be thought of as authentically Italianate as Schicchi. But there’s no juice in the tone – always dry, it’s now dusty as well – and though his counterfeit impersonation of the dead Buoso is very funnily sung in a pinched senile whine, there’s something not especially endearing about his take on the role: and, to me at least, he isn’t nearly imposing or charismatic enough to convince. There’s also the fact that, ever since it stopped being the repertory foil to Ravel’s L’heure espagnole in the house and joined the other two panels of the triptych, there’s been insufficient room for the (airless and unpleasant, I think) set to motor all the way upstage to invisibility, leaving Schicchi down front on a bare floor, clutching his retrieved bust of Dante under his arm, to deliver the spoken envoi literally ex machina, Instead, the set nowadays stays put and nothing happens visually at all at the end: so much for progress.
The best, or at least the most characterful, singing in this revival comes from the greedy relatives, though Gwynne Howells (Simone) is now getting so vague of pitch that he’s rather a liability. But Elena Zilio’s formidable battle-axe of a Zita is a real pearl, and so is Rebecca Evans’ tarty Nella, ably seconded by Marie McLaughlin’s even tartier La Ciesca. Schicchi is an exceptionally tricky opera rhythmically, full of extraordinary syncopations, off-centred accents and fragmentary ensembles, but despite momentary imprecisions, the whole piece had a more confident ring to it than (the harmonically far more daring) Il tabarro earlier, and brought the achingly long evening – starts at 6.35, ends at 10.22 – to a suitably rousing close. I’m not minded to give an overall star rating for this, but will assess the operas individually, from which you will gather that, in this revival at least, there’s no sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, with a so-so Schicchi and a threadbare Tabarro (depressingly so, it being my favourite of the three) this can hardly pass as a general recommendation at all. But I do have to emphasise just how good the singing nuns section is, and your traction with the rest may well differ from mine, not to mention the unlikelihood of encountering this expensive to mount and difficult to cast trilogy again in the foreseeable future.
Il tabarro 2*
Suor Angelica 4½*
Gianni Schicchi 3*
(Photos by Bill Cooper / Arena Pal)