Saturday, December 8, 2018

Murder, Divine Grace and Farce

Puccini’s Il Trittico
Met Opera
November 30, 2018

The gang's all here: Puccini's Il Trittico at the Met
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Apparently, Puccini intended the three one act operas of Il Trittico to always be performed together. But they rarely are. For starters, it’s expensive to have three completely different sets and casts in one evening. Also, the evening can get pretty long with massive set changes. Finally, the three works are not equally strong so often one (or even two) are dropped. Case in point, I had seen Suor Angelica together with Gianni Schicchi before but never Tabarro. So I was glad to experience the whole package the way Puccini intended it. And at the Met, which is the house where Il Trittico premiered on December 14, 1918.

It all begins in a very dark place of the soul.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The evening started literally and figuratively in a very dark place with Il Tabarro a tale of passion, betrayal and murder. We are on the quais of the Seine and the nocturnal action revolves around the barge of Michele and his wife Giorgetta who employ a number of laborers for the loading and unloading of goods. Among them there is the dashing Luigi, who had an affair with Giorgetta. Everybody is pretty miserable and dreams of better lives. Michele remembers happier times with his wife and, upon discovering her betrayal, kills her lover and surprises her with the dead body. 

Villain without a cause. The murderous Michele in Il Tabarro.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
While the ingredients for great drama are there, this cast unfortunately did not deliver. There was zero chemistry between soprano Amber Wagner as Giorgetta and tenor Marcelo Alvarez as her lover Luigi (even if they both singers sounded very good) and most importantly baritone George Gagnidze as the murderous Michele was just not a strong enough villain. Since he’s the propeller for the super dramatic finale, his lack of oomph both vocal and acting-wise made the whole thing fall a bit flat. I’d be interested in seeing this again with a more convincing cast. 

Opolais moves as Suor Angelica.
Photo credit: Ken Howard 
Next up, with Suor Angelica the sets of church-gardens-cloisters were bright and airy, perfectly suited for a cheerful tableau of a day in some jolly nuns’ lives, with their innocent chatters and problems (such as longing to pet some lambs). When the focus shifts to Suor Angelica, though, the register swiftly moves to the mysterious first and heavily dramatic later. See, the thing is that Suor Angelica comes from a super-rich noble family who forced her to take the veil to distance her from the shame of bearing a child out of wedlock. She has been without news from her family for seven years, and when her super evil aunt (the Principessa, played by the always excellent Stephanie Blythe) shows up, things do not bode well. 

In the title character, soprano Kristine Opolais dominated the show with a visceral performance delivering a study in motherly love, pain and loss. I have recently become a mother and this opera, thanks to Opolais’ performance, spoke to me like never before. When the protagonist discovers – 2 years after the fact – that her son died, my heart sank. And when her pain starts pouring out in the aria Senza mamma, bimbo / tu sei morto, I cried. In the hands of Opolais, the potentially sappy plot turned into an emotionally raw piece, showing that with the right leading lady, this is a very powerful mini opera. Yes, the finale with the rapid fire succession of suicide—prayer for redemption—ascension to heaven with little angel boy welcoming his mother are a tad much, but the pain that came before then was real and universal. 

The farcical family tries to piece it all together
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Last but certainly not least, Gianni Schicchi is definitely the best of the three. This choral piece is so much fun that makes you wish Puccini spent more time popping out comic operas. Death is also front and center (as in the other two operas of Il Trittico), however here it is treated in farcical tones. Buoso Donati just died, leaving all his riches to the monks, probably to spite his greedy relatives. Enter trickster Gianni Schicchi to the rescue, who impersonates Buoso and modifies the will, only to leave the most treasured possessions (including a mule and the windmills of Signa) to... Buoso’s beloved friend Gianni Schicchi! The plot is fast paced, the comic timing terrific and the music just works. 

The cast was terrific all around, with everybody displaying excellent Italian, absolutely necessary to savor the juicy libretto. In the title role, legend Placido Domingo was quite impressive, displaying great acting chops, fluid movement and lyrically soave singing. While he came across more like a baritonal tenor than a real baritone, it mattered little since he conveyed Schicchi’s character with savoir faire and an almost youthful energy, clearly having a lot of fun with it. In a way, it’s a perfect fit for him at this stage in his career. Tenor Atalla Ayan and soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan delivered with ardor their lovebirds arias. The sets were the most elaborate and complex of the three one act operas, almost as to finish the evening with a bang and an optimistic feel good vibe, with a terrace overlooking the Florence skyline, a couple in love and a legendary singer asking for the public’s understanding as he turns off the stage lights. 

– Lei

Domingo elevates the hopes of all around
Photo credit: Ken Howard

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