Not since 1952 has the San Francisco audience had the chance to attend a performance of Puccini's three one-act operas. This Trittico, in a production originally presented at the New York City Opera, revealed itself to be a somewhat uneven achievement. Nonetheless, several moments of great dramatic and vocal mastery made this work, rarely presented in its original form, worth the wait.
Death is a leitmotif of Il trittico, and it is explored in the various effects it has on people. Il tabarro, giving the title to the first piece, is the cloak with which barge-owner Michele used to protect his wife Giorgetta and his son from cold Parisian winters, before the child's death; by the end of the drama, this same cloak will become the place the where the murder of Giorgetta's lover is concealed.
The verismo aspects of Il tabarro were exploited by Allen Moyer's concept for this set design. Yet a dirty dock, dimly lit, was not effective into conveying the strong feelings of lust, regret and mourning that this opera portrays.
As the two lovers Giorgetta and Luigi, Brandon Jovanovich and Patricia Racette were certainly credible. Their voices blended smoothly, and both showed great control of their instrument. In addition, Racette was a charismatic presence on stage. Their relationship was loaded with lusty overtones which, together with a score heavily orchestrated for strings, overstated the passionate dynamics of the plot.
On the other hand, Paolo Gavanelli as Michele, a man haunted by the thought of his dead child, suffered from a lack of projection in his tone, and often he was often overpowered by the orchestra. A slight weakness in his voice did not entirely marr his portrayal though: his Michele was intense and devilish, a man devastated by pain and a victim of his own strong passions. The famous lines, 'Tutti quanti portiamo un tabarro che asconde qualche volta una gioia, qualche volta un dolore... Qualche volta un delitto!' ('We all wear a cloak hiding sometimes joy, sometimes pain, sometimes a murder'), were pervaded with a profound sense of bleakness.
Among the portrayal of secondary characters, Catherine Cook was the most successful: through her warm tones, she made La Frugola, the rummager, a sympathetic human being lost in a pathetic world. Andrea Silvestrelli brought to his Il Talpa a deep bass voice, yet some problems of pitching and his metallic timbre made his rendition problematic. As the song peddler, Thomas Glenn traced with mellow tones Puccini's self-quotation of Bohème-like melodies, even if his diaphanous voice struggled to reach the audience at times.
Suor Angelica was the most intense and uniformly executed opera of the night. Once again, the designer had chosen a realistic setting – a children's hospital, with only a few chairs and tables to define the space. Unlike Il tabarro, in this case the spartan and aseptic environment provided for the ideal backdrop for the story of Suor Angelica to evolve, erupt and resolve.
In the title role, Racette managed to exploit vocally and dramatically all the psychological subtleties of her character – a repentant nun, born from an aristocratic family, whose scandalous past still haunts her. Racette's warm and almost sensuous tone contrasted with Ewa Podles' unique contralto timbre. In the role of the merciful Princess, Suor Angelica's aunt, Podles dominated the stage both physically and vocally: her Princess was brutal and intense, and the command of her voice was impressive.
Moreover, she was the driving force in the performance: it was her interpretation that provided a powerful impulse for the evolution of the story. Angelica, after finding out that her son has died, imagines taking her own life as the only way to be reunited with him. With a desperate gesture, Angelica tears away the veil from her head and covers a statue of the Madonna: she does not want the Virgin Mary to see her commit suicide. The severe dissonances of the score were enhanced by Racette's tone in her delirious monologue, accompanied by plaintive violins.
Finally the curtain opened on Gianni Schicchi, and the audience's reaction said a lot about this production: laughs cheered the imaginative space portrayed on stage. In fact, it is impossible to talk of a mere update for this opera. It was more a timeless situation that director James Robinson and designer Allen Moyer had in mind. This opera was originally thought to be set in Florence at the end of Duecento – at a time in which Dante, from whose Divine Comedy the title character is drawn, was still alive.
In this version, the setting becomes a surreal bi-chromatic geometrical space inhabited by parodic characters. Costumes by Bruno Schwengl match the set's colours, creating a dreamlike harmony, which also benefits from a subtle use of lighting.
The overall effect was that of a cinematic and surreal vision. These parodic tones were perhaps the reason why a gigantic image of a Florentine landscape through a window broke the surreal atmosphere, disharmoniously. The desire for the presence of Italian folklore was perhaps pushed to the extreme, and not always with success.
As for the singing, Gavanelli's Schicchi suffered from the same lack of projection that affected his Michele. And yet, his Schicchi was memorable, thanks to his charisma and the vocal nuances he was able to master with subtlety and precision.
On the other hand, David Lomelí did not manage to depict a convincing Rinuccio, especially due to a detectable flatness of his vocal reading. Racette portrayed a spirited and humorous Lauretta, and his big number 'O mio babbino caro' was a success.
Among the secondary roles, Meredith Arwady, Catherine Cook and Rebekah Camm were delightful, as Zita, La Ciesca and Nella respectively. Ensemble scenes were beautifully rendered too, and the entire cast benefited from witty choreography.
Under the baton of Patrick Summers, the orchestra never sounded incisive and, inexplicably, some sections were far more preponderant than others - the brass in particular. Gianni Schicchi was perhaps the most musically nuanced performance, with its moments of powerful crescendo that Puccini's score demands.
Despite some problematic elements, many characteristics made this Trittico a successful event. Patricia Racette as the heroine of the three operas, an unrivalled Ewa Podles dominating the stage, and a memorable Paolo Gavanelli were able to offer the audience a genuinely rewarding sample of artistry and entertainment.
Photos credits: Cory Weaver
Review Il trovatore at the San Francisco Opera
Interview with Paolo Gavanelli
Review Gianni Schicchi at the ROH
Interview with SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti