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.

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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