When George V attended the UK premiere of Il trittico, Puccinis triptych of one-act operas, in 1920, he purposely timed his arrival for the end of the first. Had he been seeing Richard Jones production for the Royal Opera House he would have enjoyed two brilliantly executed operas, while still missing out on more than a third of the experience. The joy of this Il trittico, in which the productions of Il tabarro and Suor Angelica are new, lies both in the strength of the individual productions, and the way in which together they create an evening of varying textures and moods. Each opera has a different set designer, although paradoxically this highlights as many synergies as it does contrasts between them.
Ultzs set for Il tabarro presents a deep, dark image of the bargemans life, with the water (upon which the boat appears to sink as much as float) being pitch black. We are confronted with a deep set of factories and warehouses that create a continuous wall across the stage and imply entrapment. The only gap in it is an alleyway that leads to a neon lighted house of (presumably) ill repute, suggesting that this hardly presents a means of escape. At the same time, the introduction of human details such as passers-by and workers in the factories means that we avoid any exaggerated vision of hell, and instead believe that the protagonists could actually live in this grim reality.
This creates a potent backdrop against which we can start to understand the individual characters. We can appreciate the sense of distress or claustrophobia that each feels, where the longing for escape can be as strong as either the physical or psychological barriers that prevent it. The performers rise to the occasion, with Aleksandrs Antonenkos Luigi leading the way, his powerful voice raised to ethereal heights. Lucio Gallo as Michele provides an effective contrast to this because his sound is lighter, although just as strong. As Giorgetta, Eva-Maria Westbroek conveys her emotions as much through her vocal output as her physical gestures. When she dances with Luigi, her clunky hoofing suddenly ceases, but the pairs steps still fall short of presenting a Romantic ideal, hinting persistently at their own inadequacies and vulnerabilities. Irina Mishura is also a tremendous Frugola, and Ji-Min Park a beautiful Song Seller.
In Suor Angelica Miriam Buethers set takes us to the convents infirmary, a Spartan area with pastel green walls, where the sisters tend to sick children. This provides an effective dynamic to the opera, ensuring that there is always something to catch the eye as the sisters go about their business serving up food or changing sheets. When the nuns discover the dying Angelica, their scurrying activity to hide the horror from the children, while one continuously repeats the sign of the cross, provides a potent lead into the final frozen tableau. Ermonela Jaho is a moving Sister Angelica, her voice possessing immense sensitivity and expression, as well as a dash of sternness when required. There is an effective cool, haughty detachment to Anna Larssons tones as the Princess, while as the Abbess Irina Mishuras voice has great resonance.
It says more about the other two operas that Gianni Schicchi, which still concerns death, greed and deceit, should provide the light relief. With John Macfarlane making Buoso Donatis house a chintzy space with tasteless wallpaper, we have the perfect setting for the shenanigans that take place within. The wills and moods of the large, and mostly greedy, cast are played out through dancing and choreographed finger wagging that keep the humour bubbling at the surface throughout. Lucio Gallo excels as Gianni Schicchi, as we witness an intelligent and mischievous brain going into overdrive, and the image of him dragging back in the stolen bust of Dante while the lovers finish their duet is hilarious. Francesco Demuro as Rinuccio proves a beautiful Italianate tenor, Ekaterina Siurina as Lauretta gives a moving rendition of O mio babbino caro, while Gwynne Howells Simone, Elena Zilios Zito and Henry Waddingtons Spinelloccio also stand out.
Throughout the evening, the sheer extent to which all of the vocal performances are strong in their own right, and remain so in keeping with the character or emotion being portrayed, is remarkable, while in the pit Antonio Pappano never puts a foot wrong. By virtue of the bar it has set itself, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House will be hard pressed to maintain such a standard for every subsequent production, but, if it can, the 2011/12 season is set to be a truly great one.
The Royal Opera Houses Il trittico will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday, 17 September at 18.20.