Saturday, October 3, 2009

Il Trittico

Giacomo Puccini's Il Trittico (Triptych, 1918) is a trilogy of one-act operas: Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi. It's unusual to get a chance to see all three operas in one evening, as Puccini originally intended; of the three, only the last makes it into Operabase's list of the top 50 most frequently staged operas. This season Patricia Racette, an Exotic and Irrational favorite, assumed all three leading soprano roles in San Francisco Opera's production; we went to see the September 30 performance (photos of the SF Opera production by Cory Weaver).

To take the operas in reverse order of performance, but ascending order of rewards:

Gianni Schicchi (pronounced "Skeeky") is a story taken from Dante's Inferno, but given a comic twist by Puccini and librettist Giovacchino Forzano. The grasping extended family of the rich Buoso has gathered at his deathbed. That family includes the young Rinuccio, who wants to marry Lauretta, the daughter of the wily merchant Gianni Schicchi. Rinuccio's greedy relatives are opposed to the match because Schicchi cannot provide what they consider to be an adequate dowry. When the family discovers that Buoso has cut them out of his will and left all his wealth to a monastery, though, Schicchi proposes that he impersonate the dead man and dictate a new will to a notary. You can probably guess how Schicchi turns the situation to his (and Lauretta's, and Rinuccio's) advantage.

Gianni Schicchi's paper-thin plot succeeds or fails on the strength of the singer portraying Schicchi; Paolo Gavanelli proved to be a master of comic gesture and timing. And the eye-popping set and costume designs (by Allen Moyer and Bruno Schwengl, respectively) that update the action to a fantasy 1950s added to the comic atmosphere.

The high point of any Gianni Schicchi production, though, is Lauretta's delivery of one of Puccini's most famous arias, "O mio babbino caro" (O my dear papa). Thanks to Onegin65, here is a recording of one the greatest Laurettas ever, Victoria de los Angeles:

In English the words are, "O my dear papa/He [Rinuccio] pleases me, and is handsome/I want to go to Porta Rossa so we can buy a ring/Yes, yes, I want to go there!/And if my love were in vain,/I would go to the Ponte Vecchio/and throw myself in the River Arno!/I am aching, I am tortured!/Oh God, I want to die!/Father, have pity on me, have pity!"

Taken out of context, as it often is in recitals and on movie soundtracks, this aria sounds like an anguished plea from daughter to father (after all, she threatens suicide). As directed by James Robinson in the San Francisco production, though, Racette made clear Lauretta's playfulness and comic exaggeration. Clearly, this Lauretta is very much her roguish father's daughter.

I'd thought that the overt piety of Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) was going to be a bit hard to swallow; I should have had more faith--in Puccini's theatrical instincts. At the core of the opera is a bitter confrontation scene between Angelica and her icily imperious aunt, the Principessa (the great Ewa Podleš, making her SF Opera debut).

Years ago, Angelica was sent to the convent because she had disgraced her family by giving birth to a son out of wedlock; now, the Principessa coldly demands that Angelica sign away her inheritance to enable her younger sister to marry. In this clip from the May 2008 l'Òpera de Sabadell (Catalonia) production, the implacable judgement of the Principessa is brilliantly expressed by the almost otherworldly voice of the contralto Mariel Aguilar (thanks to lenalita2008):

The words (again by Forzano) in English: "Often, in the evening, I go to the chapel to pray. In the silence of those prayers my spirit seems to leave me and join your mother's in secret, ethereal communion. How painful it is to hear the dead mourn and weep! When the mystical trance passes, I have only one word to say to you: Atone! Atone! Offer my justice to the Blessed Virgin!"

Unfortunately, the San Francisco production undermined, rather than reinforced, the sense of menace that Podleš' spine-shivering voice created in this scene. The convent was represented as a harshly lit refectory, with overhead fluorescent lights eliminating all shadows. Lighting designer Christopher Maravich also eliminated any sense of the time of day; when the characters sing of the setting sun turning the water of their courtyard fountain golden, nothing was shown onstage.

Robinson's directorial choices also undermined the ending of the opera. There's no way to discuss this without spoiling it, so if you don't want to know what happens, skip the next two paragraphs. The Principessa reveals to Angelica that her son has died; numbed, Angelica signs away her share of her parents' estate, and then resolves to join her son in death by consuming poisonous herbs. As she's dying, she realizes that she's committed a mortal sin, and begs the Virgin for forgiveness. In her final moments, she sees a vision of a young boy, and hears a choir singing of salvation.

The SF Opera production deliberately demystifies this moment. The choir, of course, is the other nuns, and the boy is obviously one of the children who had earlier come into the refectory for dinner. He gazes through the closed door at Angelica convulsing on the floor; she dies, and the curtain falls. What's missing is what this vision in her final moments means to Angelica. I think it would have been far more effective for us to realize that she's seeing one of the children, but then for the doors to open and a golden light suffuse the scene: we know that it's just a boy from the hospital, but Angelica clearly believes that it's a vision of her son. If the director felt that he had to demystify Angelica's experience further, he could have done it in reverse: have the golden light fade, the doors close, and have Angelica's vision resolve into one of the children from the hospital. Robinson's choice, though, seemed unsatisfactory--it gave us no sense of Angelica's experience in her last moments, only our own rational and disenchanted perspective. A missed opportunity. Still, thanks to Racette and Podleš, the Angelica/Principessa confrontation was thrilling.

I feared that Il Tabarro (The Cloak) would earn the "shabby little shocker" tag that Joseph Kerman so notoriously (and unfairly) applied to Puccini's Tosca. Again, I underestimated Puccini and his librettist Giuseppe Adami. Il Tabarro is a masterwork in miniature, a brilliantly compressed tragedy that hurtles inexorably to its horrifying conclusion. The barge-master Michele suspects (rightly) that his wife Giorgetta is having an affair with one of their deck-hands, Luigi. What make Il Tabarro so great is that each character is given his or her full due. Luigi (the excellent Brandon Jovanovich) has been harshly exploited his whole life, working under grueling conditions for other men's profit. Giorgetta is clearly the best thing that's ever happened to him, and Racette's ravishing voice and womanly curves make his irresistible attraction highly convincing.

Giorgetta herself dreams of escaping the barge and returning to the excitement of Belleville, the working-class neighborhood where she grew up. But as Racette's nuanced performance tells us, Giorgetta is not just bored and frustrated: she wants to leave the barge in part to escape the memory of a child that recently died in infancy. The hulking Michele (Paolo Gavanelli) is clearly set up to be the bad guy--only, in a darkly lyrical scene, harrowingly sung by Gavanelli, he pours out his love for his wife, his anguish at losing her love, and his sorrow over the death of their child. Gavanelli's portrayal makes Michele an immensely sympathetic character, which complicates our response to the horror that follows. The first portions of the SF Opera preview give a (too brief) sense of the production:

In Il Tabarro Puccini employs the orchestra brilliantly to set the scene and mood. We hear the mournful horns of ships on the Seine and the ringing of distant church bells. The growing sense of suspense and menace is palpable. For me, Il Tabarro was the revelation of the evening, and of the three operas that make up Il Trittico, the one that I'm most eager to see again.

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