Composer’s Hat Trick: Alan Oke and Puccini’s Il trittico [The Royal Opera’s Il trittico (Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi) – 12-27 September 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the tenor who participates in two of the three operas which together open the new season at Covent Garden…

Alan Oke

When it comes to yoking together operas, the most-famous example is Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Hardly less enjoyable at The Royal Opera (in 2007 and 2009) have been two comedies, Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. The latter work really belongs in a contrasted programme of three operas that Puccini conceived as Il trittico in which it followed the dramatic Il tabarro and Suor Angelica. It was back in 1965 that Covent Garden last staged this triptych. However, Antonio Pappano is an advocate for the combination that Puccini planned and Il trittico opens the 2011-12 Covent Garden season. Tenor Alan Oke (his surname pronounced as a single syllable, as in oak) is reprising the role of Gherado in Gianni Schicchi and breaking new ground by appearing also as Tinca in Il tabarro.

Alan has been tenor since 1992, but he started his career as a baritone. “The change didn’t happen until I was thirty-eight so I had had quite a long stint as a baritone. That year I had a bit of time at home and for some reason – I don’t really know why – I started to fool about with some tenor stuff, and after a couple of months at that I had convinced myself. So I went to one or two people I knew, people like Leonard Hancock, who would tell me straight with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ and they all said ‘Of course: you’re a tenor’. After that I had a lot of help with lessons, but the idea of making the transition was more or less something I did on my own.”

In his early teens, Alan, half-Scottish on his mother’s side, had formed a strong intention to become a singer and graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama at the age of twenty-one. With the aid of a scholarship he was able to go to Munich to study with the great bass-baritone Hans Hotter. “It was expensive living there and taking those lessons so I would go for only two months at a time and it was Lieder that I studied with him, not opera. But it was fascinating to be with someone like that who was a mega-figure, a large presence. He would sing a lot during lessons and, being quite a good mimic, I would copy him which was not a good thing for me, not at all. However, some of the things he said – about how to sing German, for instance – have stayed with me. Earlier I had had a teacher who had regarded me as a bass-baritone, but Hotter encouraged me to become a higher baritone and on occasion he would even say ‘I hear a bit of something tenorish there, but you don’t need to do anything about it’. The same thing had been suggested when as a student in Manchester I had had a couple of lessons with Freddie Cox, but his attitude too was ‘if it happens, it happens’. It may be that it was because I was really a tenor all along that I had a number of technical problems as a baritone. I don’t really know, but I do wish that the change had come about much earlier because what I sing now suits me so much better.”

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith & Alan Oke as Old Man Marshall (Anna Nicole, The Royal Opera, February 2011). Photograph: Bill Cooper

As a tenor, Alan’s repertoire has been very wide extending from Mozart to such recent works as Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole while also taking in such roles as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio and Rodolfo in La bohème. Janáček features a lot, too. “I was recently fortunate enough to be in a very good production of From the House of the Dead in Leeds and next spring I have a small role in The Makropulos Case at the Met.” But, while the dramatic nature of Janáček’s works has a very strong appeal for Alan, it is another 20th-century composer whose roles draw him most of all. “At the moment I feel that musically it is the Britten roles that are the ones in which I feel most at home. They are marvellous to do, and a marvellous challenge as well. I’ve been doing Aschenbach a lot in the last few years and, all things being equal, I’m very much hoping, perhaps in a couple of years, I shall play Peter Grimes. I’m certainly very different physically and vocally from Ben Heppner, who as a big singer, almost a Heldentenor, brings to the role an elemental force. Some of the best people who have done Grimes have that, but there are also those like the lovely Philip Langridge and Peter Pears himself who are more English lyric-tenors and I think of myself as being more like that.” Alan appeared as Bob Boles in last season’s Covent Garden staging of Grimes featuring Heppner and it’s noticeable that he takes on both long and short roles, among the former in recent times being not only Aschenbach

Alan Oke as Aschenbach in Death in Venice

in Death in Venice but Gandhi in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha while the stevedore he plays in Il tabarro appears only briefly. “There aren’t any small roles: to think of them that way is a mentality thing because every opera needs every artist, even if they have only a few bars. The challenge is different but in some ways, save for the physical side of it, the bigger roles are easier. With a longer role, even though there may be particularly difficult passages to handle, you have the whole evening to put it across, and you have a journey from beginning to end which is a wonderful thing to do and provides a pleasure that short roles don’t. But even if you have just a phrase or two you absolutely have to nail it. With Gianni Schicchi it is different again because it is a true ensemble piece in which you share the stage and it’s a great pleasure to be doing it with a whole lot of people that I know well and who are all brilliant at it. In addition there’s the wonderful invention that Richard Jones bring to it as director.”

The title role in Gianni Schicchi dominates. He is the wily figure who, on being asked by a family to conceal the fact that they have been disinherited, concocts a scheme to create a new will and then turns it to his own advantage. Save for Schicchi and his daughter Lauretta, who provides a change of pace and tone with the celebrated aria known in English as ‘Oh My Beloved Father’, most of the cast are family members and treated as such musically. The singer playing the title-role has a special part to play in putting his mark on the piece. In 2009 it was Thomas Allen and this year it is Lucio Gallo (he also plays Michele in Il tabarro). “Lucio is a brilliant chap with a marvellous voice and, although it’s his debut in the role, he has a head-start because he’s an Italian singing in Italian. If you’re not Italian then you are at a disadvantage. Well-versed though we may be in languages, we have to think about it. But here if you are Italian you don’t need to think about it, and that must be a wonderful place from which to start. But with Lucio, as with Tom, even though their character is pulling the strings they contribute to the unity of the whole performance.”

Alan declares Gianni Schicchi as the best opera Puccini wrote. We know the composer would not agree because he is on record as regarding Suor Angelica as his favourite in the triptych. But, since that opera with its all-female cast obviously does not involve Alan, we spend the rest of the time discussing Il tabarro (The Cloak). I approach it by asking Alan if through having Richard Jones as director any kind of unity is emerging, or whether the involvement of different designers (John Macfarlane for Gianni Schicchi , Ultz for Il tabarro and Miriam Buether for Suor Angelica) points in the other direction. “I don’t think that the three pieces are linked in any way: there’s no theme going through. But there is the contrast of moods that was absent when Gianni Schicchi was paired with L’Heure espagnole and that’s Puccini’s cleverness. I can understand why Il trittico is not much done, mind you. Quite apart from the cost of having all those people, it makes for a long evening, and that’s not always easy to bring off. But if any man can do that, it’s Richard Jones. As for Tabarro, I didn’t know the work of Ultz but he has created an incredible set. I would describe it as being pretty naturalistic – it shows a huge wharf-side tenement and there are people at the windows. It’s quite near the front of the stage so with the barge alongside it towers over everything. As for the period, it’s certainly not pre-World War I even though Il tabarro was conceived in 1912 and was to appear as part of the trilogy in 1918. Having tried on Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes and noted details on the set such as a horn gramophone I feel that it suggests the 1920s or, more likely, the thirties.”

This mention of the 1930s proved particularly relevant as our conversation continued even though when the triptych was first staged it appeared in musical terms to look back despite echoes of Debussy in the opening of Il tabarro. I had approached this interview with counter-arguments in mind. Admittedly there are moments in the score which reflect what Puccini had done before – a duet for the married Giorgetta and her lover Luigi and a nostalgic passage in praise of Belleville – and, indeed, at one point La bohème is directly cited. But Il tabarro seems to look forward to French films of the thirties, especially Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, while its stress on the struggles of the poor to make something of their lives displays a social concern no less acute than found in the films of Ken Loach. So, even if the work’s conclusion (which explains why it is called The Cloak) is undoubtedly melodramatic, do the other dramatic elements make it a work that was not behind the times but ahead of them? “Well, Richard has described it as a melodrama – but not, I think, in any disparaging sense and he has told us to watch L’Atalante, which has definitely influenced the design of the piece. And, since all of the characters are in a hopeless situation through being workers affected by grinding poverty, I have been reminded of films like Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves. Come more up to date and there is quite a parallel with David Mackenzie’s film of Alexander Trocchi’s novel Young Adam. Not only did it have a similar set-up on a barge, on the Forth & Clyde Canal in the 1950s, but it has a very similar plot-line with an older husband, like the barge-master Michele here, discovering that his wife has taken up with a younger man.”

When we discuss certain details – the presence of a song-pedlar and the sound of an organ-grinder – we find that Il tabarro also foreshadows Death in Venice. “That’s right: they do work like that, and the colourful small characters in this opera are also akin to those that Britten’s opera is full of.” But it’s back to the 1930s for one final comparison. “In some productions, Tinca might be played as a bit of light relief and the music lends itself to that. But that’s absolutely not what we are doing here: there are no goodies and baddies, the people are all victims and not characters who suddenly redeem themselves by doing the right thing.” That comment is true both to the text and to the music for Tinca drinks to stop himself from thinking and a fellow-stevedore and his wife dream of life in a country cottage not as a paradise but as a place where they can wait for death to cure all ills. As for the husband, Michele, whose taking of vengeance brings Il tabarro to an end, he regards peace as being attainable only in death and the music does not seem to condemn him. It’s this understanding felt for all that brings to mind the line from Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, La Règle du Jeu, “everyone has their reasons”. Alan feels that Richard Jones’s staging is sensitive to all of this and to a side of Michele that makes him almost spiritual in the way he is attuned to nature. “At the start we are playing it like it’s the hottest day ever and we are looking at a sunset, which for Michele is tremendously symbolic.” Alan says no more about his own role but concentrates instead on a fellow artist. “Having appeared with Eva-Maria Westbroek in Anna Nicole, I am finding it fascinating to hear her in the role of Giorgetta. She’s such a delightful person that it’s lovely to work with her again, and it’s all the more interesting because her role here is so completely different.”

  • Il trittico – Six performances at 6.30 p.m. from Monday 12 September to Tuesday 27 September 2011
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content