Music review: Il Trittico, Royal Opera House

At last, Puccini's triptych is performed in full in an extravagant production.

The panels of Puccini's great triptych of operas Il Trittico are most often staged now in isolation, or in arranged operatic marriages with other one-acters. Reunited for the first time in almost fifty years at Covent Garden, the operas glow under the musical direction of Antonio Pappano, who wields his baton like a restorer's cloth, gently revealing Puccini's original colours. They emerge all the more clearly in their three-way contrast - the murky modal browns of Il Tabarro set against the luminous, sometimes hysterical brightness of Suor Angelica and finally the primary-coloured comedy of Gianni Schicchi.

While Pappano and director Richard Jones (around whose 2007 Gianni Schicchi this new production has been built) are common to all the operas, three different designers give each its own visual aesthetic. It's a gesture that speaks to Jones's self-contained approach, faithful to the distinct sound-worlds Puccini creates for each. Yet for so rare a coming-together it seems either very wilful or very brave not to attempt some sort of interpretative synthesis - a decision not fully vindicated by the end of the evening.

We open in the dingy brick waterways of Ultz's Paris for Il Tabarro, the red of a neon silhouette-stripper's garter glimpsed down an alley the sole colour in the scene. The uneasy surge and seethe of Puccini's Seine in the violins and flutes sets up the tragedy whose violent fulfilment will barely interrupt its heedless flow. The vividness Pappano brings to the orchestra grates tellingly against the muted palette of the design - the bright interior passions of characters condemned to a faceless exterior life.

"We all wear a cloak," according to Adami's libretto, but unfortunately on opening night Lucio Gallo's was a rather impenetrable one, bringing little energy and still less sympathy to cuckolded barge-owner Michele. Emotions so interiorised as to be all but invisible were matched by uncharacteristically swallowed delivery, making little sense of his defiantly explicit final act of violence. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Giorgetta and Aleksandrs Antonenko as lover Luigi fared better in what was vocally a well-balanced partnership, but their rather blunt passions never quite seemed to transform domestic drama into tragedy.

Suor Angelica is notoriously the troublemaker of the trio, an awkwardly fatalistic little parable of sin, punishment and redemption, its morality constrained along with its heroine in the stiff clerical uniform of Catholicism. Yet it is here that Jones has found the tragic central Pietà for his triptych.

Relocating the action to the children's ward of a hospital, Jones and designer Miriam Buether free the opera (and its denouement) from the mysticism that can sour it, turning a heavenly vision into something literal and infinitely more painful. Soprano Ermonela Jaho, replacing Anja Harteros, brought desperate tension to Angelica, her naturally frenetic vibrato only adding character to the delivery, and "Senza mamma" was as pure a plea a prayer as I've heard. It's a role for Jaho that time and greater vocal weight may improve musically, but which dramatically may suffer, losing its poignant catch of discomfort.

Casting off the delicacy of Suor Angelica, Jones's 2007 Gianni Schicchi finds the director back on zany home ground. Moving from the postwar years of the other operas into the gaudy consumerism of the early 1960s, the humour of this folk-tale (immaculately, if perhaps a little too carefully drawn in the pit) takes off in a way it never quite did in its original partnership with Ravel's L'Heure espagnole. True, Gallo's rather predatory Schicchi isn't the equal of either Terfel's or Sir Thomas Allen's, but in place of their headline acts we get a genuinely ensemble comedy whose humour is so unanimous, so exact (Jeremy White's altercation with a cupboard is still a high point), as to more than compensate. Francesco Demuro's impassioned Rinuccio leads proceedings vocally, supported by some beautiful work from Rebecca Evans's Nella and Marie McLaughlin as La Ciesca.

At four hours including the necessarily long set-changing intervals Il Trittico is too long. Its stories are too cursorily dispatched and its moods too disparate to carry a coherent dramatic impact. But the music - Puccini's most vivid, most psychological of scores - somehow makes sense of this jumble of excess. In Richard Jones's hands Il Trittico is an exaggerated version of itself - altogether too much, but boldly, generously so.

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder