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16 September 2011

Music review: Il Trittico, Royal Opera House

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

By Alexandra Coghlan

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.

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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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