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Puccini’s Gothic Masterpiece

New York
Pier 16 by Ambrose
05/14/2023 -  & May 15, 16, 17, 2023
Giacomo Puccini: Il tabarro
Eric McKeever (Michele), Ashley Milanese (Giorgetta), Yi Li (Luigi), Jose Heredia (Tinca), Artega Wright (Talpa), Sharmay Musacchio (La Frugola), Daniel Rosenberg (Song Seller)
Members of the American Modern Ensemble, Geoffrey McDonald (Conductor)
Laine Rettmer (Stage Director), Katherine M. Carter (Intimacy Director), Howard Tsvi Kaplan (Costume Designer)

E. McKeever (© Bowie Dunwoody)

God touched me with his little finger and said, ‘Write for the theater. Only for the theater.’
Giacomo Puccini

Dmitri Shostakovich (To Benjamin Britten): “What do you think of Puccini?”
Britten: “I think his operas are dreadful.”
Shostakovich: “No, Ben, you are wrong. He wrote marvelous operas. But dreadful music.”

Memoirs of Lord Harewood, The Tongs And The Bones

Unforgivable is the only word used for my previous ignorance of On Site Opera. As the title signifies, On Site Opera has presented operas and opera excerpts on New York settings which come close to the opera setting itself. A brilliant idea.

And while I’ve tried to make up for my ignorance with a two dozen‑odd New York opera sites in the CODA, this cannot make up for neglecting productions from its start in 2012.

This evening’s production of Puccini’s Il tabarro (The Cloak) on the Ambrose, a 120‑year‑old lightboat boat anchored at the South Street Seaport. Built about a decade before Puccini’s opera, the Ambrose was emblematic of On Site Opeera’s imagination. In fact, the drama of the setting was so gorgeous, so breathtaking, that it rivalled Puccini’s singular one‑act tragedy.

We the audience sat outdoors on (what seemed like) a loading dock facing this huge triple‑masted historic vessel. While the orchestra was on our level, the opera itself was on three levels. First, our “loading dock” itself, where the supernumeraries and stevedores passed in front. Then the real gangplank to the Ambrose, then the real deck of the vessel itself, with real oil lanterns, real ship‑bells, and the real tragedy taking place on all the close quarters of the Ambrose itself.

Add to this the one‑hour duration with breeze, sun and open sky, for the ship canal leading to the East River (sorry, no Seine River) for an audience where even dogs were allowed to watch. (I was reminded of Maurice Ravel’s L’Heure E‑spaniel.) Nowhere could a locale be more spacious, with more reality. And with a sound system allowing the body‑miked sound to be as clear as the singers’ enunciation.

Add to this a very late opera from Puccini which belied the Shostakovich quote above. While the truncated chamber orchestra–a mere 15 players–played well enough, there was no way they could capture Puccini’s atmospheric, virtually Debussy‑ian lushness and color. One had to rely on the voices to bring forth the tragedy.

A. Milanese/Y. Li (© On Site Opera)

The voices and the acting. This is one opera with no villains, but Eric McKeever as the betrayed husband had music which could fit Scarpia–and his torment from first scene of doubt to find denouement was played with a dark threatening baritone.

The two doomed lovers, Ashley Milanese and Yi Li, had the single echt‑Puccini aria together, one of the composer’ fabulous creation and sung with all due passion. Ergo their stage presence. Katherine M. Carter was billed as “Intimacy Director”, an unfamiliar title but quite evident after their intimacy.

These were stock characters, played to the hilt. Yet, where Tabarro is virtually Grand Guignol tragedy, Puccini couldn’t help some comedy. This was La Frugola, the scavenger, and this was the absolutely delightful contralto Sharmay Musacchio, her voice, her movements, her wondrous paean to her cat all the perfect interval.

One must honor stage director Laine Rettmer for keeping the action non‑stop active. But then, she had that most rare of all settings, the actual site of the opera. And she used every space to hold us captivated. And had they continued with the shipboard scene from Tristan or Flying Dutchman, nobody would have left their seats.

CODA. Returning home on the subway, I couldn’t help jotting down some On Site Opera suggestions. To wit: Fidelio: Riker’s Island; Orphée (or Orphée et Eurydice): Entrance to any subway station, the paradigm of underworld hell; Traviata Act One or Rosenkavalier: Met Annual Gala; Bach’s Coffee Cantata: Any Bleeker Street coffeehouse; The Saint of Bleeker Street: Ditto; Pelléas et Mélisande: Brooklyn Botanical Gardens; West Side Story: Series of subway cars; Suor Angelica: The gorgeous medieval gardens of the Cloisters; Gianni Schicchi: Greed’s epicenter, New York City Hall Legislative offices; Pagliacci: Cirque du Soleil.

Einstein on the Beach: Take the Path Train to Princeton University Institute for Advanced Study; Aida: Museum of Natural History Temple of Dendur; Aida Final Scene: Sepulcher, Greenwood Cemetery; Rheingold: Central Park at Dawn; Turandot: Canal Street on Chinese New Year; Figaro (Rossini or Mozart): Merchant’s House Museum.

Don Giovanni: Statue of Libertines (Couldn’t resist); Don Giovanni last scene: Crab House All You Can Eat Buffet, Queens; Rake’s Progress: Home Depot Gardening Section (just kiddin’); Boris Godunov: Brighton Beach restaurant celebration of Russian gangster leaders.

Etc etc. Having reached my Union Square stop (Blitzstein’s Sacco and Vanzetti?), time to get off!

Harry Rolnick



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