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.

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.