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Together Again: Il Trittico at the Met

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
11/20/2009 -  & November 25, 28, December 1, 5*, 9, 12, 2009
Giacomo Puccini: Il Trittico

Il Tabarro: Patrica Racette (Giorgetta), Zeljko Lucic (Michele), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Luigi), Paul Plishka (Talpa), Stephanie Blythe (Frugola), David Cangelosi (Tinca), Matthew Plenk (Song Seller), Ashley Emerson and Tony Stevenson (Two Young Lovers)
Suor Angelica: Patricia Racette (Sister Angelica), Stephanie Blythe (The Princess), Tamara Mumford (The Abbess), Wendy White (The Monitor), Barbarra Dever (Mistress of the Novices), Heidi Grant Murphy (Sister Genovieffa), Linda Mays (Sister Osmina), Jennifer Check (Sister Dolcina), Maria Zifchak (Nursing Sister), Joyce El-Khoury and Edyta Kulczak (Lay Sisters), Anne Carolyn Bird and Reveka Evangelia Mavrovitis (Alms Collectors), Monica Yunus and Teresa S. Herold (Novices), Christina Thomas Anderson and Sandra Bush (Two Sisters)
Gianni Schicchi: Alessandro Corbelli (Gianni Schicchi), Patricia Racette (Lauretta), Stephanie Blythe (Zita), Saimir Pirgù (Rinuccio), Keith Jameson (Gherardo), Jennifer Cheek (Nella), Donato Di Stefano (Simone), Patrick Carfizzi (Betto di Signa), Jeff Mattsey (Marco), Patricia Risley (Ciesca), Paul Plishka (Spinelloccio), James Courtney (Amantio di Nicolao), Donovan Singletary (Pinellino), Jeremy Galyon (Guccio)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Stefano Ranzani (Conductor)
Jack O’Brien (Production), Douglas W. Schmidt (Set Designer), Jess Goldstein (Costume Design), Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (Lighting Designers)

A. Corbelli (© Ken Howard)

Puccini’s extraordinary triptych, Il Trittico, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918. Since its premiere, this unique work has often suffered from a problem that has long afflicted multi-paneled works in the visual arts – dismemberment. Individual panels of Renaissance altarpieces have been scattered round the world and only rarely do museums mount exhibitions that reunite the parts that their creators conceived as belonging to the original whole. Similarly, it was not long after the first performance that Puccini’s creation was pared down with two of the three works being performed together or even one work being paired with a short work by another composer. Over time, Gianni Schicchi has proven to be the most popular. At the Met, it was first presented without the other members of its triptych in 1926, in a double bill with Pagliacci. Later revivals at the house would see it paired with works as diverse as L’Amore dei Tre Re, Hänsel und Gretel, Salome, Elektra, and Bluebeard’s Castle.

At opera houses round the world, dismemberment has continued to be the rule rather than the exception. Part of the explanation is practical. Producing all three works together requires a very large number of excellent singers and great strength in ensemble performance. This is particularly true of Gianni Schicchi. These days, the ever more acrimonious debates about the authenticity of an operatic work usually pit what is known about the composer’s intentions against novel conceptions by directors. Interestingly, however, the propriety of dismembering Il Trittico remains an infrequent topic of discussion. It was Puccini’s clear intention that the three operas be performed as a unit. This marvelous production by Jack O’Brien of all three operas premiered in 2007. It achieved wide exposure through an HD broadcast.

It returned to the repertoire this season with one important and highly unusual feature: One soprano, Patricia Racette, appears as the lead soprano in all three operas. She gave excellent performances throughout, but the title role in Suor Angelica was clearly the dramatic and musical highlight. In assuming all three roles in New York, she follows three illustrious predecessors – Teresa Stratas and Renata Scotto at the Met and Beverly Sills, across Lincoln Center Plaza, at the New York City Opera.
Stephanie Blythe, reprising her performance in the premiere of this production, also appeared in all three works, albeit in less prominent roles.

So what ties the three operas together? Not much. In fact, there are very few similarities. All involve death but so, of course, does a large chunk of the opera repertoire. The first, Il Tabarro is melodramatic; the second, Suor Angelica, is tragic or sentimental, depending on one’s point of view. The third, Gianni Schicchi, is Puccini’s only comic opera. All are more or less continuous with a few famous exceptions like “Senza mama” and ”Io mio babbino caro.” In all three, Puccini uses his mastery of orchestration to delineate the atmosphere in the first few measures, reminding one of those extraordinary Scarpia chords in Tosca. In Il Tabarro, the relentlessness of fate can be heard in the ominous ostinato. In Suor Angelica, the choral ensemble evokes the deep and abiding faith of convent life. And in Gianni Schicchi, Puccini manages, even before we hear anything from the characters, to make it clear that we are about to enjoy a marvelously wicked comedy. The Met Orchestra, under Stefano Ranzani, handled the multifarious demands of these three works without any problems. They were simply superb.

Of all of Puccini’s works, Il Tabarro, the first panel in this triptych, is most akin to the verismo style of opera, best exemplified by Puccini’s contemporaries, Mascagni and Leoncavello. Their subject is ordinary people in the grip of extraordinary and violent emotions. Michele, the owner of the barge, is filled with longing for the affection his wife, Giorgetta, has withdrawn since the death of their young child. He comes to realize that she is having an affair with Luigi, a member of his crew. Giorgetta is not only grieving; she is bored. Bored by the monotony of her life, she longs for the excitement of Paris. At the end of the opera, Michele strangles Luigi and hides his body under his own cloak. Then he reveals the body to his horrified wife and throws her onto her lover’s corpse. This scene was simply shattering. The set and lighting were stunning, and the coloristic effects, in shades of red with accents of blue, receding into an ominously darkened sky, added so much to the mood and atmosphere.

As Luigi, Aleksandrs Antonenko sang with power and conviction. Patricia Racette truly embodied her character and created a deeply affecting portrayal. Zeljko Lučić as the wronged husband was truly terrifying, singing with a thrilling combination of vulnerability and menace. Stephanie Blythe, in the small role of Frugola, the wife of one of Michele’s stevedores, showed off her acting skills and splendid voice to great effect.

The emotional core of Il Trittico is its second opera, Suor Angelica. O’Brien gives us a radically simplified set, dominated by the church and contained within its walls, just like the life of the nuns in the convent. Sister Angelica is seen tending her herb garden. The nuns are at prayer. Everything bespeaks harmony and tranquility. Underneath the apparent serenity, however, there is, in a way that is somewhat similar to the first opera, sadness and longing over a lost child, Angelica’s child. Her rich and powerful family force her to give up her baby, born without the benefit of marriage, and sent her to live out her life in the convent. She does not even know whether her child is a boy or a girl. The opera features marvelous work by the women of the always superb Met chorus.

Angelica’s aunt, the Princess, sung by Stephanie Blythe, appears to deliver the news that her child has died. The dramatic high point of this opera is the confrontation between the two characters. Blythe sang with a full gleaming tone and power to spare. And with her imperious bearing, she truly embodied the role. Angelica’s reaction to this terrible news, conveyed in the extraordinarily moving and beautifully sung “Senza mama,” is a decision to commit suicide. She uses her knowledge of herbs to find the means. But, too late, comes the realization that by taking her life she is committing a mortal sin. Her heartfelt plea to the Virgin is answered by a miracle; Angelica’s child appears to lead her into heaven. Racette’s performance was a vocal and dramatic tour de force and the audience responded with an enormous ovation.

For the third opera, O’Brien gives us another dramatic change of scene, and we are transported to Florence of the recent past. Buoso Donati has died and his greedy relatives have surrounded his bed in mock mourning, which quickly turns into the real thing when they realize that he has left all of his money to the monks. In a panic, they undertake an exhaustive search for his will. When they find it, their worst fears are confirmed. Buoso has indeed disinherited them. Only one man can rescue them – Gianni Schicchi, a charismatic and entrepreneurial fellow with slippery ethics. He is quickly sent for. When he initially declines to help the family, his daughter, Lauretta, threatens to jump off the Ponte Vecchio. Racette sang the most famous aria in the three operas, “O mio babbino caro” with a lovely lyricism, but she was clearly tiring. Lauretta’s motivation was less pecuniary than it was romantic; she is in love with one of Donati’s relatives, the young and handsome Rinuncio. Her father relents, dons a nightshirt, and after the dead Donati is unceremoniously removed to the bathtub, Schicchi climbs into his bed. The notary is sent for but, of course, Schicchi has the last laugh. All of the relatives get more than they deserve but so does he. Much more. After the notary leaves, in a stunning scene change, the set for the Donati bedroom is lowered and is replaced by a rooftop vista of Florence. The young lovers celebrate their union.

The ensemble acting was superb and the vocal standard equally high. There were standout performances by Stephanie Blythe as the deliciously malicious Zita, and Donato Di Stefano as Simone, and Saimir Pirgù as the lovestruck boyfriend, Rinuncio. He had a lot of scope to show off his various skills – a lovely tone, a talent for comic acting and excellent declamation. His performance of “Firenze è come un albero fiorito" was splendid.

The opera and perhaps the entire evening is stolen by Alessandro Corbelli as Schicchi. He is simply a superb comic actor, with a sly, knowing manner and marvelous enunciation. He is also a splendid singer. His “Addio Firenze,” in which he tells the greedy relatives of the horrific consequences for them if their scheme is discovered by the authorities was an utter delight. Schicchi comes forward at the end to ask the audience for a judgment of not guilty. I am certain that no one in that audience would even consider any other verdict.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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