Death Has Many Guises
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
09/12/2011 - & 14*, 17, 19, 23, 27 September, 2011
Giacomo Puccini: Il trittico
Lucio Gallo (Michele), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Giorgetta), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Luigi), Alan Oke (Tinca), Jeremy White (Talpa), Irina Mishura (Frugola), Ji-Min Park (Song seller), Anna Levin and Robert Anthony Gardiner (TwoLovers)
Elena Zilio (Monitress), Melissa Alder, Kate McCarney (Two Lay Sisters), Elizabeth Sikora (Mistress of the Novices), Anne Osborne (Sister Lucilla), Eryl Royle (Sister Osmina), Anna Devin (Sister Genovieffa), Katy Batho (Novice), Ermonela Jaho (Sister Angelica), Elizabeth Key (Sister Dolcina), Elizabeth Woolett (Nursing Sister), Gillian Webster and Kathleen Wilder (Two Alms Sisters), Irina Mishura (Abbess), Anna Larsson (The Princess)
Gwynne Howell (Simone), Elena Zilio (Zita), Francesco Demuro (Rinuccio), Jeremy White (Betto di Signa), Robert Poulton (Marco), Marie McLaughlin (La Ciesca), Alan Oke (Gherardo), Rebecca Evans (Nelly), Noah Scoffield (Gherardino), Lucio Gallo (Gianni Schicchi), Anna Levin, Ekaterina Siurina (Lauretta), Henry Waddington (Maestro Spinelloccio), Enrico Fissore (Ser Amantioo di Nicolao), Daniel Grice (Pinellino), John Malloy (Guccio)
Orchestra and Chorus of Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Richard Jones (direction), Ultz, Miriam Buether, John MacFarlane (set designs), Nicky Gillibrand (costume designs), D M Wood, Mimi Jordan Sherin (light design), Lucy Burge (choreography)
E.-M. Westbroek & A. Antonenko (© Bill Cooper/ROH)
I do hope we don't lose Richard Jones' trippy and very sexy 2007 staging of Ravel's L'Heure espagnole, now that its hour long companion piece, Gianni Schicchi, has finally been reunited with its two other one acters. Despite its brilliance, concision and two hit numbers, Puccini's disparate trilogy of hour long stories hasn't been staged complete at Covent Garden for over forty years. It is, I suppose, very expensive to do, requiring essentially three casts, ranging from the large dramatic roles to almost Mozartian parts elsewhere. You need a butch Jon Vickers tenor initially, then two hours later, Puccini is writing for a light, pinging Alagna style voice. Yes, there have been sopranos who have tackled all three operas but that has made fools of even the greatest divas. I don't want to hear Mirella Freni croak out her adulterous stevedore's wife again, and, blasphemy I know, sixteen year old peasant girls really don't sound like Renata Tebaldi.
So Covent Garden have done the right thing with this two thirds new production and cast it with the individual part rather than star name in mind. It is, I have to say, a little low-rent on paper with the bigger draw names being cameo roles in Gianni Schicchi. Lucio Gallo has a presence and, who of us doesn't love Eva-Maria Westbroek? But many would have also come to hear Anja Harteros, who withdrew from Suor Angelica at the last moment. This production then is resting on the draw of the piece, as well as director and conductor, a risky strategy as Il trittico will always be slightly off the traditional crowd pleasing circuit. The sweet, romantic Puccini moments maybe here, but they arrive as faded memories (a husband and wife remembering their child, now dead), cutaways (two young lovers singing in the distance just before an adulterer is strangled to death), or, as in Gianni Schicchi, self-parody (O mio babbino caro). It is otherwise a tough verite score.
Il tabarro's (the cloak) libretto alone would make Roman Polanski proud; a tough, very nasty three hander, marooned on a docked barge on a dingier stretch of the Seine, utterly unoperatic in its naturalism, and unfolding of character's backstories. Even the operatic death is messy and, well, unoperatic. There are very few strangulations in opera, aren't there? Luigi's score written gasps and chokes still shock even today's audiences and it is this realism that explains why Richard Jones' concept here is being faithful to Puccini's directions. I was almost shocked. Ultz's huge, expressionist sets hint at the prettier parts of Paris elsewhere, as well as the emptiness and claustrophobia of barge life. Puccini's sketches of working Paris life is beautifully handled here. Whereas someone like Zeffirelli would stuff the whole world and their donkey onto the embankment, Jones generally keeps the streets spookily empty, sparingly using each sailor, lover or drunk to come in at precisely the most awkward time for the main characters; like when planning their elopement or murder, or even heartfelt declaration of love. Il tabarro is a love story of sorts; The cloak is not just what the body is hidden in, not just a metaphor for people's secrets, but also the opera's gradual reveals, like the glimmer of love from Michele. Giuseppe Adami's libretto could almost be mistaken for a television play, and one almost doesn't want an opera singer (with their outstretched hands, or side by side love duets) to be let anywhere near it. Thankfully, the acting is of a pretty high standard here, although I still generally find Lucio Gallo's journey from fine Mozart singer to a hard core verismo baritone unconvincing. He is at first very good, with his firm, dark tone delivering Michele's terse, unfriendly lines with a haunted aloofness, but then comes that heart breaking duet with his wife and that huge, terrifying soliloquy of revenge and the voice comes apart, curdling and getting flatter the longer and more soaring Puccini's lines get. As his younger, disillusioned wife, Eva-Maria Westbroek is ideal vocally and physically. Her large but well controlled voice is ideally juicy and robust enough for the score, but the real discovery, for me however, was Aleksandrs Antonenko's burly Luigi. Shambling and bear-like of gait, his huge, almost weather beaten tenor is like a force of nature, an utterly plausible chance of escape for a Westbroek's carnal, but guilt ridden wife. Time and time again, Puccini writes orchestral passages where nothing happens other than off stage river effects, inviting a lesser director to fiddle and to fill the set with teeming life. Jones, by contrast, maintains audience focus by having just Giorgetta and Luigi, sitting apart, wordlessly devouring each other with their eyes. It's almost cinema and a triumph of getting singers to use stillness. Above all it is testament to Il tabarro's naturalistic scripting that even Richard Jones refuses to muck about with it.
Sister Angelica is considered the runt of the litter, often unfairly. True, the first string heavy twenty minutes are often in need of an insulin injection (lots of sweet, young nuns exchanging good and godly platitudes and jokes with each other) and the ending is very tricky to stage effectively, but the piece slowly builds to what is a chilling, gut wrenching face off, when finally a member of Angelica's aristocratic family pays a visit and the reason for Angelica's incarceration become horribly clear. Staged at first rather unnecessarily in a convent children's ward, Jones wisely pushes Angelica's grim encounter with her aunt into a corridor. You could almost smell the lino floor and institutional cleaning fluids, as the death of her illegitimate son is matter of factly announced. If nothing else, Richard Jones shares Puccini's cruel streak. Clearly set at the far end of Italian royalty (shades of The Leopard in the Aunt's faded glamour and pearls), Jones's must also see this piece as the inevitable conflict of generations and shifting social structures. But try as he does he still can't get the ending of Suor Angelica right. Her suicide is drawn out as she slowly realises that she has now damned herself. Then Puccini's sticks a holy choir in there! Is Angelica mad and imagining the choir of forgiveness? Is the Catholic God, letting her off just this once? It is hard to do convincingly in any interpretation. Jones has a child from the ward come to her as she dies, brutally deluding Angelica into thinking it is her dead child. A neat, nasty idea but the nuns gathering around blithly unable to help, doesn't quite work. Still, it was a valiant attempt to stage the unstageable, and I like the general fleshing out of the other nuns earlier on, with their occasional cheek and half-hearted obedience to Catholic duty.
Vocally, too, it was superb with Anna Larrson's Princess Aunt proving that the part doesn't have to be cast for clapped out ex-mezzos, and her buttoned up demeanour, gave her character's malice some explanation. Ermonela Jaho was a triumph in the title role, singing with unbelievable dramatic intensity and awareness of text. In fact I would even calm her down physically at times. She has a very interesting, distinctive soprano, with a beautiful vibrato, most reminiscent of Cristina Gallardo-Domas, the surprise, high-risk choice for Antonio Pappano's EMI recording of the work. Like her, I think Jaho will make it big on word of mouth, rather than hype. Still, taken as I am with her, why does she get a solo, audience hogging spot for her curtain calls? No one's that good and Suor Angelica is an ensemble piece. Ditch it, please!
Gianni Schicchi, essentially on its third outing since 2007, is now a very well oiled machine, possibly too well oiled. Generally my feelings are as positive as ever. Jones paints a very seedy, down at heel portrait of 1970's Italy, which suits this sick, little piece beautifully. Stepping in for Ekaterina's Siurina, Anna Levin (appearing in all three works very successfully) was ideally girlish and light (You don't want a Puccini soprano for Lauretta), and well matched to Francesco Demuro's bright clear tenor, the latter strained only on the top notes of his arietta. The ensemble, mostly the same as before, have kept their snobbish, amoral characters fresh and, as ever, it is Gwynne Howell's doddery, morose bastard and Elena Zilio's Lady Macbeth-like aunt who get big laughs. Proper laughs, not This-is-comic-opera-we-ought-to-laugh-here ones.
Lucio Gallo sings much better here than in Il tabarro, with even some very impressive piano singing in “addio Firenze”, but compared to Bryn Terfel and Thomas Allen who sang this back in 2007 and 2009, he lacks the droll, unkempt nonchalance that they brought to the part. It's partly his lively, wiry frame, but he also takes a far more literal, bottom pinching view of the comedy, clapping his hands for effect and grinning throughout. He's very genial but I couldn't help thinking Jones' world is funnier when these horrible people are outsmarted by a couldn't-care-less bum.
Still, these are fairly minor quibbles. Antonio Pappano is predictably on top form here. He is possibly a little softer edged since his 1997 recording, but his pacing is brilliant, especially in the wave like climaxes of Il tabarro. I still think he takes a slightly too romantic view of Schicchi (“O mio babbino caro” is too slow here, especially for a lithe voice like Anne Levin's), softening the astringency of that unique score, but the care and detailing that has gone into the whole evening is never in doubt. The real praise though is for Richard Jones. He wisely does not crow bar any thematic links between the three pieces, although the general aesthetic as a whole has a claustrophobic dinginess in each of the three settings; a non tourist, working man's Paris and Florence. Even Angelica's pastel coloured children's ward has a chokingly close institutional feel. Otherwise, Puccini's only obvious constant is death (as murder, suicide and opportunity, respectively). Aspects of Death could almost be its alternate title. Either way, Jones seems to relish the awkward dramatic corners of Puccini's disparate little masterpieces. I do hope we get more than these six performances here. Provided there are enough big names to get audiences in, Il trittico works beautifully as a vehicle for new talent.