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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism