There were lots of empty seats at the Coliseum for the opening night of Il Trittico – Puccini’s triptych of one-act operas – but if there’s any justice in this world they’ll be sold out for the rest of the run. When first aired a couple of years ago these new productions were good, and now the revival provides such strong casting that they are great.
Each opera is quite distinct but there are underlying themes of love and death. Beginning with the darkest, Il Tabarro – The Cloak – is a classic tale of doomed illicit love, set on a barge moored at a Paris quay. The bargeman’s wife Giorgetta is having an affair with Luigi, one of the stevedores, her marriage to Michele having soured after the death of their child. Michele is suspicious and when Luigi returns to the barge late that night, his suspicions are confirmed. Giorgetta, unable to sleep, returns on deck and asks to be enfolded in Michele’s cloak, once the symbol of his protection – only to discover that it now covers the body of her lover.
Il Tabarro contains perhaps the loveliest music of the three operas: lush, sweeping tunes reminiscent of Tosca in places. Here it was slightly shrill at times, but thrilling all the same. Peter Coleman-Wright (Michele) and Cheryl Barker (Giorgetta) were fine, but for me Bonaventura Bottone as Luigi stood out. His diminutive stature has always disbarred him from the great tenor roles (though frankly he might be a lot more believable as a hero than some of the larger tenors around) but he can certainly still turn on the golden voice when required. Excellent support from John Graham-Hall (Tinca) and Graeme Danby (Talpa) as the other two stevedores, and Anne Marie Owens as Talpa’s wife.
Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) takes us to a much calmer atmosphere in a convent garden, but it is soon apparent that there are dangerous currents at work here too. Sister Angelica has been confined in the convent because of the shame she has brought on her noble family – she had an illegitimate son, and longs for news of him. When the Princess, her aunt, finally visits she begs for information only to find that he has died. In desperation she takes poison, but is immediately struck with remorse for the sin of taking her own life. She prays to the Virgin Mary for salvation and is rewarded by a vision of the Virgin, carrying her child.
Suor Angelica can be a lacklustre, even tacky piece, with just one gorgeous melody to enliven it. At ENO the whole opera is a joy, with a simple set and superb lighting (taking us from a sunlit afternoon to stunning moonlight) and some wonderful singing. Cheryl Barker is a winning Angelica, sounding completely different from Giorgetta Il Tabarro. Her despair is utterly convincing, as is her joy at the vision of the Virgin and her child. Not a dry eye in the house.
The last opera – Gianni Schicchi – is more often performed than the other two, probably because it’s so much fun. This comic piece is also concerned with love and death: the elderly Buoso Donati has just died, but unfortunately has left his entire estate to the local monastery. Understandably miffed, his relatives turn to the trickster Gianni Schicchi for help. Schicchi just happens to have a lovely daughter, beloved of Donati’s nephew Rinuccio…
Gianni Schicchi impersonates the dead man and dictates a new will to the notary. When he leaves the most valuable items to himself, the relatives are speechless with rage – but helpless to protest as they are implicated in the fraud. The result, of course, is that Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta becomes the heir to a very large fortune, and is therefore a fitting bride for Rinuccio: the lovers are happy even if the rest of the family is furious.
This delightful piece is set in a fairy-tale 13th century Florence, with a lightness of touch and attention to detail that makes it come alive. The large cast is excellent, led by Andrew Shore as a superb Gianni Schicchi. Looking like Gérard Depardieu, complete with bulbous nose, large belly and scarecrow hair, he creates an utterly compelling larger-than-life character. Rhys Meirion is a gangly and appealing Rinuccio and his Lauretta is Mary Plazas. Lauretta has the one famous aria from the piece – Oh, My Beloved Father – but surprisingly, made little of it on opening night. After the beauty of Cheryl Barker’s Angelica it was an anticlimax – and one wonders why they didn’t just let the latter complete a hat trick.
But that’s a minor quibble. These productions have to be seen. In terms of design they are wonderful: how lovely to get away from minimalism for a while, and enjoy some proper sets. The lighting is also uniformly excellent – so convincing was the ripple of water in Il Tabarro that I was sure the barge was actually moving in relation to the quay… Noel Davies conducts the ENO orchestra with panache and the assembled casts work together wonderfully. Book your tickets now before everyone wakes up.