Il Tabarro: Opera in one act [Libretto by Giuseppe Adami; sung in Italian with English Met Titles by Cori Ellison]
Suor Angelica: Opera in one act [Libretto by Giovacchino Forzano; sung in Italian with English Met Titles by Cori Ellison]
Gianni Schicchi: Opera in one act [Libretto by Giovacchino Forzano, sung in Italian with English Met Titles by Cori Ellison]
Giorgetta Maria Guleghina
Michele Juan Pons
Luigi Salvatore Licitra
Tinca David Cangelosi
Talpa Paul Plishka
Song Seller John Nuzzo
La Frugola Stephanie Blythe
Young Lovers Anne-Carolyn Bird & Tony Stevenson
Sister Angelica Barbara Frittoli
Monitor Wendy White
Lay Sisters Lisette Oropesa & Edyta Kulczak
Mistress of Novices Barbara Dever
Sister Osmina Sara Wiedt
Sister Genovieffa Heidi Grant Murphy
Novices Anne-Carolyn Bird & Leah Wool
Sister Dolcina Jennifer Check
Nursing Sister Maria Zifchak
Alms Collectors Jennifer Black & Jane Gilbert
Abbess Patricia Risley
Princess Stephanie Blythe
Zita Stephanie Blythe
Simone Donato Di Stefano
Rinuccio Massimo Giordano
La Ciesca Patricia Risley
Marco Jeff Mattsey
Nella Jennifer Check
Gherardo Bernard Fitch
Betto di Signa Patrick Carfizzi
Gherardino Jacob Wade
Gianni Schicchi Alessandro Corbelli
Lauretta Olga Mykytenko
Spinelloccio Paul Plishka
Amantio di Nicolao Dale Travis
Pinellino Peter Volpe
Guccio Keith Miller
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Jack OBrien Production and Stage Direction
Douglas W. Schmidt Set design
Jess Goldstein Costume design
Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer Lighting design
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 23 April, 2007
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City
Puccini’s “Il Trittico”, which had its world premiere at The Metropolitan Opera in 1918 but was last performed here in its entirety in 1989, has been revived in a spectacular new production by Jack O’Brien, his first for the Met. The production, with picturesque sets by Douglas W. Schmidt and costumes by Jess Goldstein, updates each of the triptych’s one-act operas to the twentieth-century without doing violence to any of the three very different stories they portray. O’Brien’s marvellous stage direction, luminous playing by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under James Levine’s sensitive baton, and fine performances from an international cast took the audience through the gamut of emotions – romance, drama, suspense, horror, anguish, pathos, awe, and humour – with which “Il Trittico” abounds.
As the curtain rose on “Il Tabarro” (The Cloak), the cast was frozen in place, creating a striking tableau of Michele’s barge on the Seine in 1927 Paris. When the dark prelude began, stevedores upstage on the severely-raked set use a large crane to unload cargo, whilst aboard the barge Michele (Juan Pons) gazes into the September sunset as his young wife, Giorgetta (Maria Guleghina), removes laundry from the line, discovering in her laundry basket a baby’s cap – a sad reminder of their infant child whose death a year earlier has undermined their marriage. Levine and the orchestra set the mood perfectly, reflecting the surging of the river and the hard life of these workers. It soon becomes apparent that Giorgetta’s affections lie not with Michele, but with Luigi (Salvatore Licitra), one of the stevedores, but their assignation for later that night turns deadly when Michele discovers their secret romance. The lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer was superb, with shadows and reflections changing gradually to mark the transition from evening sunset to the full darkness of night.
The three principals were in excellent voice and portrayed their roles convincingly. Licitra and Guleghina sang beautifully and impassionedly as the ill-fated lovers, he consistently with the fiery temperament with which Luigi complains of the bleakness of a labourer’s life (“Hai ben ragione”), she in sharp contrast to her much cooler interactions with Michele. Their duet, initially hesitant and then, after an interruption by Michele, quite rapturous, was matched perfectly by Levine and the orchestra. Pons, who had been ill and unable to perform on the production’s opening night three days earlier, gave a compelling performance as Michele, particularly in his duet with Giorgetta (“Perché, perché non m’ami più?”) in which he tries but fails to rekindle their love and after which he denounces her as “sgualdrina!” (slut) – a highly dramatic moment leading to the soliloquy (“Nulla! … Silenzio!”) in which he vows to kill her as yet unknown lover.
Discontent with one’s present lot is a significant theme of this opera, voiced not only by the principals but also by the supporting characters. Michele longs vainly for his wife’s affections whilst Giorgetta and Luigi dream of settling down together to a suburban life, far from the cramped and itinerant bargeman’s existence. Tinca, ringingly performed by tenor David Cangelosi, finds solace in drink from his unfaithful wife and his hard work as a stevedore. Even Talpa, the third stevedore, and his wife, La Frugola, probably the least maladjusted characters in the opera, have their shared dream of retiring to a cottage where they – and their cat – can peacefully await death. Bass Paul Plishka, a 40-year Met veteran, sang resonantly as Talpa, and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was outstanding vocally as the eccentric La Frugola – the first of the three fascinating characters she portrayed this evening.
In Didier Gold’s Grand Guignol play “La Houppelande” (The Cloak) upon which “Il Tabarro” is based, both lover and wife are murdered before the audience’s eyes, but here, after Pons and Licitra graphically enacted Luigi’s demise, O’Brien’s staging followed the libretto’s directions as Michele “presses her against the face of her dead lover”. As the curtain fell, however, Michele’s poised hands and the ominous final chords left no doubt as to Giorgetta’s imminent fate.
Despite Puccini’s partiality to “Suor Angelica” (Sister Angelica), the world at large has not been as receptive to it as to the other two operas, so the composer’s wish that Il Trittico only be performed in its entirety has been widely disregarded. At the Met, for example, “Gianni Schicchi” has actually been performed slightly more often outside “Il Trittico” than within it (although by the end of this season that will no longer be true), and “Il Tabarro” has been paired with other works on a half-dozen occasions. Yet, “Suor Angelica” has never been performed except as part of “Il Trittico”. Even O’Brien’s admirable production of this middle third of the triptych could not fully overcome all of the difficulties of its libretto and score.
The setting of “Suor Angelica” in a convent, where there are only female voices and where most of the characters are costumed identically, or nearly so, necessarily reduces the variety and contrast of vocal timbres and makes it difficult for the director and performers to establish their separately identifiable personalities. Moreover, the first half of the opera lacks any real dramatic interest, mostly conveying background information to explain the motivations of the drama that is to follow, although this atmosphere of musical and dramatic tranquillity is not unwelcome following the intensity of “Il Tabarro”. There was some fine singing here, particularly by Wendy White as the Monitor and Heidi Grant Murphy as Sister Genovieffa, as well as by Barbara Frittoli in the title role.
It was only when Angelica and her aunt, the Princess, superbly sung by Stephanie Blythe, confronted one another that sparks began to fly, but they ignited strong emotions and dramatic tensions that pervaded the remainder of the opera. Angelica, who had been forced to take the veil and give up her illegitimate son at birth seven years ago, expressed her repentance, but also her refusal to forget him, only to be told by the Princess, quite icily, that the child had died two years ago. Frittoli – and the orchestra – convincingly conveyed Angelica’s grief, as she fell to the ground and then resignedly dragged herself to a writing-table to sign away any claim to her family’s fortune. And in her touching rendition of “Senza mamma”, the opera’s musical highlight, she tenderly expressed Angelica’s wish to die and join her child in heaven. Following a lyrical intermezzo that accompanies Angelica’s preparation of a fatal dose of poison comes what is undoubtedly the greatest challenge in staging “Suor Angelica” – the miracle at the opera’s end. Suffice it to say that this was done most effectively, bringing the work to an emotional and powerful conclusion, with the orchestra augmented by offstage pianos, trumpets, organ and a chorus that includes tenors and basses as well as female and children’s voices.
To no-one’s surprise, however, the best was saved for last. “Gianni Schicchi”, always the most popular of the ‘Trittico’ operas, was staged in hilarious fashion, making full use of O’Brien’s skills as a theatrical director. (He has won Tony Awards for direction of both musical and dramatic productions on Broadway and directed the current production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy next door at Lincoln Center Theater.) Giovacchino Forzano’s original libretto was based on an actual historical incident briefly alluded to in Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”. By setting the opera in 1959, however, O’Brien actually enhanced its comedic impact, increasing the characters’ accessibility to today’s audience. The only significant anachronism was Schicchi’s description of the penalty for testamentary fraud circa 1299, which no doubt has since been replaced with something more humane – but not so comically graphic.
In the title role, Alessandro Corbelli was vocally solid and delightfully comedic, savouring each emotion as Schicchi went from sympathy for the family of the just-deceased Buoso Donati to mockery and disgust, and then carried out his ingenious plan, rife with deception, chicanery and greed. His physical and vocal comedy in impersonating Buoso was hilarious, particularly his reminders to the protesting Donatis of the penalty for fraud. As the young lovers, Massimo Giordano (Rinuccio) and Olga Mykytenko (Lauretta) were charming, winsome and vocally bright and lyrical, he in singing the praises of his beloved Florence (“Firenze é come un albero fiorito”) and she in her plea to Schicchi to aid the Donatis and thereby make it possible for her to marry Rinuccio (“O mio babbino caro”) – the opera’s most famous moment, but hardly its highlight.
“Gianni Schicchi” is truly an ensemble piece, requiring precise timing and coordination of the performers’ actions with the carefully crafted score. Even Cori Ellison’s Met Titles had to be, and were, perfectly timed, with each punch line appearing at just the right moment to maximise its comedic effect. O’Brien’s staging was utterly hilarious as the members of the Donati family first shed crocodile tears for Buoso (with the orchestra letting us know that their supposed grief was feigned), next searched for, found and read his will, and then mourned in earnest when they learned that they had been disinherited. Each of the Donatis, as well as the doctor, notary and witnesses, was a memorable comic characterization, with each singer contributing admirably to Puccini’s precise and complex vocal and orchestral tapestry, woven under Levine’s masterful direction.
Stephanie Blythe again excelled, this time as Buoso’s cousin Zita, as did bass Donato Di Stefano as Buoso’s eldest cousin Simone. Three other members of the cast who had also appeared earlier in the evening gave fine performances here as well: Paul Plishka (Talpa in “Il Tabarro”) as Doctor Spinelloccio, Patricia Risley (the Abbess in “Suor Angelica”) as La Ciesca, Simone’s daughter-in-law, and Jennifer Check (Sister Dolcina in “Suor Angelica”) as Nella, the wife of Buoso’s nephew, Gherardo.
Schicchi, in dictating Buoso’s new will, ignored the bribes offered him by the various Donatis for Buoso’s best properties, including his house, and left them to himself instead. Adding insult to injury, he ordered Zita to pay generous gratuities to the notary and witnesses, who then took their time departing, to the consternation of the family members who could barely control their anger. In the ensuing madcap scene, Zita and the other Donatis called Schicchi a thief and he responded by declaring “It’s my house!”, and as he chased them out they grabbed everything of value that wasn’t nailed down.
The union of Rinuccio and Lauretta having been assured by Schicchi’s clever scheme, the couple looked out on a panorama of “golden” Florence (after a lovely scenic transformation) and resolved to remain there always. In the final moments of the opera, Schicchi reappeared and, observing the two happy lovers, asked the audience whether Buoso’s money could have been better spent. Though sent to hell for his misdeeds, Schicchi entreated the audience to show by its applause, if it had been entertained, that it excused him, owing to extenuating circumstances, whereupon the curtain fell to a final jovial outburst from the orchestra.
After the performers took their curtain calls, there were sustained cheers for James Levine and Jack O’Brien, the architects of this virtually flawless and delightfully entertaining production of Il Trittico.
- Further performances are scheduled until May 12
- The performance on April 28 will be broadcast live on the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network
- Metropolitan Opera