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From Triptych to Double Bill

Essen (Aalto Theater)
06/09/2024 -  & June, 15, 20*, 2024

Giacomo Puccini: Il trittico
Il tabarro

Yannick-Muriel Noah (Giorgetta), Antonello Palombi (Luigi), Heiko Trinsinger (Michele), Baurzhan Andrrzhanov (Il Talpa), Albrecht Kludszuweit (Il Tinca), Bettina Ranch (La Frugola), Alejandro Del Angel (Song Seller), Lisa Wittig, Alejandro del Angel (Lovers)

Suor Angelica
Jessica Muirhead (Suor Angelica), Bettina Ranch (La Zia Principessa), Marie‑Helen Joël (The Abbess), Hyejun Melania Kwon (The Monitress), Estelle Haussner (Mistress of the Novices), Lisa Wittig (Suor Genovieffa), Michaela Sehrbrock (Suor Osmina), Christina Hackelöer (Suor Dolcina), Laura Vila (The nursing sister), Stefanie Rodriguez (A novice), Helga Wachter, Iva Seidl, Uta Schwarzkopf, Marion Steingötter (The alms and lay sisters)

Gianni Schicchi
Heiko Trinsinger (Gianni Schicchi), Lisa Wittig (Lauretta), Marie‑Helen Joël (Zita), Alejandro Del Angel (Rinuccio), Albrecht Kludszuweit (Gherardo), Christina Clark (Nella), Baurzhan Anderzhanov (Betto di Signa), Andrei Nicoara (Simone), Tobias Greenhalgh (Marco), Hyejun Melania Kwon (La Ciesca), Andreas Baronner (Maestro Spinelloccio), Michael Haag (Ser Amantio di Nicolao), Hyeong Joon Ha (Pinellino), Ullrich Franke (Guccio)
Opernchor & Kinderchor des Aalto-Theaters, Patrick Jaskolka (chorus master), Essener Philharmoniker, Wolfram-Maria Märtig (conductor)
Ronald Schwab (stage director), Karina Hässlein (revival stage director), Piero Vinciguerra (set designer), Gabriele Rupprecht (costumes), Christian Schröder (dramaturgy)

J. Muirhead (© Matthias Jung)

In my twenties, I saved money to travel to Florence to see a production of Il trittico. At the time, it was not frequently performed. There was the added thrill of hearing one of my heroes, the Greek-Argentine soprano Elena Suliotis, who emerged from retirement to sing the minor role of La Zia Principessa in Suor Angelica. Moreover, I was to hear Gianni Schicchi in Florence, or in situ!

Having recently seen a production of this same opera in Barcelona, it’s now clear that productions of Puccini’s mature operas are no longer rarities. This is a great development. As well‑written as Manon Lescaut, La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly are, it’s normal to tire of them.

Puccini was vexed by a trend, started in 1920 by Covent Garden, to present only Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi, dropping Suor Angelica, judging it too Catholic for a largely Protestant public. For almost a century, this tendency to perform just two of the three, or to pair one of these with another short opera has sadly continued. I’ve seen Gianni Schicchi in combination with Suor Angelica, Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie, with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and with Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole. Given the difficulty of finding voices for the three leads in Il tabarro, it remains the least performed.

Hungry for Puccini’s least-performed mature operas, I was attracted to a performance in the Northwestern German City of Essen, in part thanks to rave reviews for Jessica Muirhead, the soprano singing Suor Angelica. This UK‑Canadian soprano, an alumna of Montréal’s McGill University, my own alma mater, was a revelation, making the trip well worthwhile.

Piero Vinciguerra’s sparse sets were simple but effective: a huge pool occupied much of the stage, with an equally imposing mirror aloft, tilted for the audience to see its reflection. In the pool was what appeared to be a body, the corpse of Giorgetta and Michele’s recently-deceased child. Obviously, this is allegorical rather than literal.

The first opera, Il tabarro, opens with a static tableau of the couple standing in front of the pool, representing the Seine, where Michele’s boat is moored. Michele is holding a red ball, obviously belonging to the dead child, which floats in the pool for the opera’s duration. For those who know the plot, this tableau had the right impact – immense sadness from the start, as it recounts the story of a couple grieving the loss of their child. This palpable grief renders the couple’s relationship (already, he is twice her age) unbearable. Michele grows suspicious of Giorgetta’s infidelity. The only logical candidate among the stevedores in his employ is Luigi.

German baritone Heiko Trinsinger is an expressive singer who conveyed his profound melancholy subtly, thanks to director Ronald Schwab. His jealousy is not of the stereotypical Latin variety, but rather poised and calculated. Only at the end of the opera is he truly menacing, with the murder of Luigi.

The Madagascar-born Canadian soprano Yannick-Muriel Noah was a terrific Giorgetta. Endowed with the appropriate lirico spinto voice and its attendant temperament, her Giorgietta is a broken woman, dead inside, but with a glimmer of hope, thanks to her affair with stevedore Luigi. Director Schwab’s attempt to make Giorgetta familiar with her husband’s employees by having her hold a six pack, throwing beers to them was dubious.

Italian tenor Antonello Palombi’s huge voice was impressive. For once, here’s a tenor with an Italianate voice singing Luigi. Most present‑day tenors with big voices are eastern-European or American. Palombi convincingly portrayed a boorish working class man. His chemistry with Giorgetta was palpable. Their complicity promised a glimmer of hope in this gloomy setting. Palombi’s clear diction contrasted with the less idiomatic abilities of the other singers.

The minor character roles like Il Tinca, Il Talpa and Frugola were brilliantly portrayed, and despite their brevity, they remained all‑important. Most touching was Frugola, who finds joy in her dull life by sorting other people’s trash and finding what she perceives to be treasure. Though the role is vocally undemanding, mezzo Bettina Ranch enlivened it through excellent acting. Her svelte figure and scruffy but elegant deux‑pièces suit betrayed a previously proper lady who’d seen better times. This detail, as well as the drunken stevedores, added to the opera’s lugubrious ambiance.

Based on the grand‑guignol play by Didier Gold, La Houppelande (1910), Il tabarro is the most verismo of the three short operas. The final scene, in which Michele murders his wife’s lover Luigi, was blood‑curdling but not excessive. In some productions, Michele also murders Giorgetta after showing her Luigi’s corpse. Director Schwab chose to have her survive, implying a long life of drudgery and despair.

All three short operas involve death – Giorgetta’s child and then her lover Luigi in Il tabarro; Suor Angelica’s child and then her own suicide in Suor Angelica; and finally the imminent death of a rich Florentine merchant, in Gianni Schicchi. For Suor Angelica, director Schwab retains the same sets with the child’s corpse in the pool. The opening scene shows Angelica alone onstage by the pool. The other nuns sing behind curtains around it. Angelica is an aristocrat who disgraced her family seven years earlier, birthing a child out of wedlock, and exiled to a monastery as punishment. She awaits news of the child she’d given up. When her aunt, La Zia Principessa, solicits her signature for inheritance documents, Angelica learns her child has died. After her aunt’s departure, Angelica takes her own life, committing the most mortal of sins.

By opting to have the nuns offstage part of the time, the public doesn’t experience their little quirks. Save for the ex‑shepherdess Suor Genovieffa, who longs for the touch of a lamb, and the glutinous Suor Dolcina, the nuns remain anonymous, which is somewhat morose. Marie‑Helen Joël was too dour as the Abbess. Unless intended as a foreign Abbess, her diction was lacking. Bettina Ranch was a less imperious Zia Principessa, preferable to excessive interpretations. By portraying a more humane aunt, her harsh reproaches to Angelica, with emphasis on words like “penitenza” (penance) and “spiare” (expiate), seemed even more devastating. Judging from the aunt’s outfit and mannerisms, the action was modified from the seventeenth to the mid‑twentieth century, without a hint as to why.

Truly riveting was the natural intensity shown by Jessica Muirhead as Suor Angelica from the very start of the opera. From her body language and her gaze, this was not a complete person but the vestiges of a scarred woman. There was serenity, but also screaming internal suffering, marvelously achieved without histrionics or affectation. In the league of Janet Baker, Susan Chilcott, Josephine Veasey, Pauline Tinsley and Rosalind Plowright, Muirhead possesses that interiority, unique to British singers. They mesmerize the audience before a note is sung. This comes from a total and complete interiorization of the role, a task very few can ever hope to achieve.

Muirhead was equally brilliant, vocally and dramatically. Her lyric soprano was distinctively crystalline, her technique impeccable and her diction excellent. Her aria “Senza mamma” was sensational, bringing many, including me, to tears. This is truly a unique voice. Angelica’s suicide was at the behest of her child, imploring her to join him in Heaven. Realizing the gravity of her sin, she envisions the Virgin Mary, a sign of divine forgiveness. But here, the director eschewed that vision, perhaps deeming it too religious in our present secular society. Nevertheless, the scene’s powerful poetry was deftly communicated through Muirhead’s dramatic intensity. Move over, Mary! Muirhead was the miracle incarnate.

After the end of Suor Angelica, there was a moving farewell ceremony for Jessica Muirhead, who’s leaving Essen’s Aalto Theater, an ensemble she’d joined in 2015. Demonstrating a rare talent for languages, her German farewell address was as well‑enunciated as her Italian singing. Bravissima!

Unpredictability is part of life. Alas, the soprano performing the role of Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi was indisposed, and no replacement could be found. This is distressing, as the role is on the light side, requiring a youthful-sounding lyric soprano with but one aria to sing, the hugely popular “O mio babbino caro.” It’s not comparable to searching for a last‑minute Isolde, Norma, Turandot, Otello or Tristan. Thus, the third short opera of Puccini’s Il trittico was cancelled. The triptych became a simple double bill! However, given the overwhelming performance by Jessica Muirhead, I was happy to leave with Suor Angelica’s death scene as my last memory of the evening. I look forward to following this soprano’s career. A singer of this calibre and intensity is rare indeed, more so than performances of this once‑rare Puccini opera.

Ossama el Naggar



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