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Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

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Patricia Racette (Sister Angelica) in Suor Angelica [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
11 Oct 2009

Il trittico in San Francisco

In the otherwise silent sixteen years between La fanciulla del west (1910) and Turandot (1926) Puccini had a flirtation with operetta, La rondine (1917) and with the quick and easy drama of the short story in his three one-acts, Il trittico (1918), composed as a one-evening cycle.

Giacomo Puccini: Il trittico

Click here for cast list of Il Trovatore

Above: Patricia Racette (Sister Angelica) in Suor Angelica

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera


Both light-weight works remained on the fringe of the Puccini repertory for most of the twentieth century, though in recent years they have been exploited in opera’s attempt at repertory expansion.

In San Francisco La rondine reappeared in 2007 in a lackluster production made splendid by the magnetic Rondine of Angela Gheorghiu. Il trittico was in the 1923 and 1952 SFO seasons (though parts of it have appeared in many other years), and just now it has dared the War Memorial stage once again, and succeeded as one of its truer artistic ventures!

The by-now enormous vocal resources of SFO triumphed, led by Merola and Adler Fellow alumna Patricia Racette as all three heroines — Giorgetta, Suor Angelica, Lauretta, supported by fifteen other past and present Merolini and Adler Fellows, notably mezzo Catherine Cook as Frugola, Monitor and La Ciesca. And not the least of whom was conductor Patrick Summers, a most distinguished Merola alumnus. Three singers only, of the thirty two singers who performed the myriad of roles across the three operas, validated the company’s international pretensions, Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli as Michele and Gianni Schicchi, Polish contralto Ewa Podles as the Princess, and Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as Il Talpa and Simone, thus delicately spicing the otherwise all American brew.

Verismo as an operatic term is applied to the Puccini oeuvre though verismo per se is much purer than any Puccini opera ever wanted to be. Puccini was far more entralled by horror theater, the infamous Grand Guignol, like the blood bath that concludes Madama Butterfly, her two-year-old son looking on, and particularly in the revelation of Luigi’s mutilated body in the triptych’s Il tabarro. Not to mention Suor Angelica’s on-stage suicide under the gaze of the Virgin Mary, and the Gianni Schicchi heirs’ horror that their arms be reduced to stumps.

Schi_LomRac.gifDavid Lomelí (Rinuccio) and Patricia Racette (Lauretta) in Gianni Schicchi

Paris’ Theatre du Grand Guignol, the world’s original horror theater (20 rue Chaptal), finally petered out in 1962, the public no longer titillated by the contemplation of the gruesome. But it was going strong during and after the first world war, and fashionable for the fashionable. Puccini was a man of his times, a true Italian with his finger on the pulse of style, and all style was Parisian just then. Voilà Il trittico.

Nowhere on earth do opera audiences seem partial to high style. Thus when West Virginia born stage director James Robinson conceived this fairly high concept production for New York City Opera in 2002 he was careful to imbue its original cutting edge style with adorable, witty images. The first was even a caricature, a super-endowed and sexually overripe female alone on the empty stage slinking alongside a mostly submerged hut. Puccini’s Seine flowed as bored time and there was little hint of a Parisian dockside, it could have been near a coal mine as well, but where was not the point as long as it was dark and low.

Robinson stripped la Frugola of her usual pathos, instead we saw a happy, giddy floozy with her homey fantasies. Luigi was a lanky American boy, not smart enough to keep his hands off the boss’s wife, Giorgetta, who was aching to be touched in her little girl, Butterfly voice, and strangely dismissive of her baby’s death. At last Michele blew-up in nearly buffo terms leaving Luigi dead, hanging from his arms like a Michelangelo Pietà.

Robinson rendered Suor Angelica’s seventeenth century convent as a twentieth century children’s hospital adorable in its sterile detail. Its diseased and maimed occupants were quietly eating lunch while its custodians chattered about trivial spiritual concerns. The maiden aunt arrived in supercilious Protestant outrage and the resulting suicide was somehow rendered by all this clutter into terms that were softly personal, and heart wrenchingly tender. The final, blurred vision of an Asian-American boy (Trouble, now seven years old?) was super witty, hardly maudlin at all.

Robinson made Buoso Donati’s home with a view a shiny white high rise hospital room, so shiny that its patterned black and white marble floor was perfectly reflected on the walls and ceiling, the heirs attired in oh-so impeccably fashionable black and white. Lauretta was a daddy’s valley girl who got finally everything she wanted, save a good view of Florence as set designer Alan Moyer’s Duomo dome ruthlessly blocked most of it. Nothing’s perfect.

And so the more delicate sensibilities of twenty-first century audiences were titillated by wit rather than horror. And greatly so by the superb individual performances of the entire cast. Patricia Racette, without doubt the world’s reigning Butterfly, was in magnificent voice (9/30). She applied the wiles of the complex Butterfly role to Puccini’s quickly drawn triptych heroines with contagious gusto. Though Il trittico had its world premiere at the Met in 1918 (with three different sopranos), the Met jumped the anniversary gun by introducing a new production by Jack O’Brien in 2004. Odds are that even the new, enlightened Met with its reprise next year (with la Racette) cannot one-up this low budget NYCO production as it was incarnated just now at SFO.

Notable among many fine performances was American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, already an SFO Pinkerton (2007), whose rendering of Luigi as a down-and-out itinerant worker willing enough to appease Giorgetta’s animal needs was down-right real. Mexican tenor David Lomelí, an Adler Fellow, brought solid voice, stolid presence and just about enough stature to fill the shoes of Lauretta’s fiance Rinuccio. Impressive indeed was the contralto voice and performance of Merola alumna Meredith Arwady as the Abbess and Zita.

And finally Paolo Gavanelli stepped off the stage onto the apron to have the last word, and beg applause for his vivid performances of two of opera’s most sympathetic villains, Michele and Schicchi, and for Puccini’s kitsch operatic novellas of heaven and hell, and purgatory too. There was a mighty roar, particularly for the responsive, hyper-sensitive conducting of Patrick Summers who got Puccini just right for this heady concoction.

Michael Milenski

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