Sunday, September 25, 2011

Guest Blogger EB Reports on Il Trittico at ROH

Il Trittico
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Sept 23rd 2011

Image courtesy
Royal Opera House
If this review spills over into hyperbole, I make no apology, for I had been looking forward to this production for years. I have long admired Puccini's Triptych, never having understood why it isn't better known and more frequently performed - I suppose the fearsome demands it makes on a company taking up the challenge would probably explain the latter. Still, there have been some high profile international productions in recent years and I have been fortunate to see complete performances at ENO in London (twice) and at the Met (with the late, lamented Salvatore Licitra), along with assorted productions of the single operas elsewhere. I still feel it would make an overwhelming evening at Glyndebourne.

Enough! This new production at the Royal Opera is most welcome and anything by Richard Jones is worth seeing. I greatly enjoyed his gloriously dingy, Fellini-lite production of Gianni Schicchi when it first saw the light of day at Covent Garden in 2007 in a double bill with L'Heure Espagnole. That occasion marked Bryn Terfel's first stab at the title role. This revival (differently cast as below), with the addition of new productions of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, represented a new version of the Triple Bill as a whole.

As with his similarly successful ENO production of Les Troyens, Jones cleverly opts for a different designer for each of the three "panels", thereby avoiding the temptation to impose spurious interpretative links between them. Of course, links exist (loss and deprivation, children, frustrated dreams) - but in truth the three are very different pieces. Whilst Puccini's musical language connects the three, he also acknowledges their difference by giving each a distinct musical and dramatic tinta. Jones in turn acknowledges this in the very different atmospheres of each of his productions. Some of his signature directorial features are certainly there--claustrophobic, grubby mid-20th century settings, some of the un-naturalistic and coordinated movement of characters about the stage--but each production stands triumphantly in its own right.

Besides Jones, the lynchpin of the enterprise is of course Antonio Pappano, who is perhaps a Puccini conductor without equal today. His recording of Il Trittico (to which I listen as I write) can probably be regarded as definitive, and he leads his wonderful orchestra unerringly to paint Puccini's evocative aural pictures for each of the three operas. In Puccini, just about everything is contained in the score. Dame Josephine Barstow described performing his music as "painting a minature"--everything has to be exactly calculated and "right". This, I believe, is Pappano's approach and he unlocks the dramatic power in each score with his unerring attention to detail, which reaps rich rewards. He rightly received a huge ovation at the end of the evening.

So to the individual operas, and a declaration of interest here: Il Tabarro is my favourite, as somehow for me it captures all of Puccini's genius in its short span. Perhaps more than its two companions, every last dramatic detail is to be found in the score, and perhaps for this reason Jones plays it straight (although straight is never quite straight in a Jones production--the hypnotically slow, almost sleepwalking stevedores, their synchronised drinking, and Giorgetta's neurotic, jerky mopping of the deck attest to this). The feel of the show is that of a 1950s film noir, and Ultz's strikingly simple set depicts a utilitarian barge beside a skewed black, sooty quayside overlooked by featureless office windows where grey clad women sew joylessly. The austerity of the setting somehow highlights the cruelly frustrated aspirations of the protagonists--Giorgetta yearns for the enticing shop windows of Belleville before a row of closed, grimy shutters, and Talpa's and Frugola's country cottacge feels a very long way away. There is some atmospheric detail, including sundry passers-by observing the action (not sure why La Frugola disappears up an alley with a lady of the night towards the end, mind you) - but Jones seeks largely to focus on his protagonists. This is not to say his direction lacks imagination, though, for there is also an almost self-effacing dramatic touch. How obvious--yet powerful--that Luigi's corpse should lie under the tabarro (here a blanket) on the deck exactly where Giorgetta had left Michele lying a scene earlier, so that she begins a conversation with him as she re-emerges from below decks at the opera's chilling climax.

Michele is played here as seriously unhinged, standing ramrod-straight and stalking the deck with a slow, purposeful stride and glassy stare, ligature at the ready to strangle Luigi. Despite Lucio Gallo's slight frame (especially as compared with that of his Luigi) there is never any doubt as to his murderous potential. Some have found Gallo's performance underplayed. I didn't, although in truth the part lies too low for him. Ironically, his Dutch Giorgietta and Latvian Luigi give performances in a more "Italian" operatic mould. Aleksandrs Antonenko's performance oozes sexual energy (admittedly of a very rough-hewn kind), and he sings with wonderfully robust, fearless, ringing tone. He returns to Covent Garden later this season for Otello (with Anja Harteros, of whom more below) and I shall not be missing the opportunity to hear him again. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Giorgetta strikes me as a close relative of her Katerina Ismailova or perhaps her Anna Nicole (both for Richard Jones and both at this address)--all physical awkwardness and dowdy sexuality. Vocally it's a great match for her ample, gritty soprano, and she sang wonderfully. Much of it sits in her potent middle voice (her key line, "come e difficile esser felice" is set low but here came across with unflinching power), but her voice retains its bloom up to and including top C. Great cameos too, especially from Irina Mishura as la Frugola.

Ermonela Hajo as Angelica
Courtesy Royal Opera House
Jones' reimagining of Suor Angelica is the triumph of the evening and I don't believe I was alone in being emotionally wrecked by the end. The action takes place in a children's ward staffed by nursing sisters (oh, for such high staffing levels in today's hospitals). The curtain rises on an astoundingly beautiful stage picture (designed by Miriam Buther)--tall, sage green walls, evening light filtering through skylights above, hospital bedsteads along the walls. One can see throughout how the characters are the product of Jones' clear thinking about their past lives. Thus, ward pharmacist Angelica sits staring out at the audience, tense, obsessionally grinding her pestle and mortar and counting pills, quite in keeping with her emotionally frozen response to the loss of her parents and her child. Her nursing colleagues keep their young charges well out of her way. Her aunt is no icy harridan but a tense, tortured creature, clearly terrified of Angelica's hatred of her as a reluctant substitute mother. Before she utters a word, her horror at the sight of the ward and the clutching of her fox fur for dear life tell you all you need to know. The other sisters in this "convent" have a powerful sense of Angelica's torment, yet no idea of its nature, thus her suicide--witnessed by them in this production--comes as a genuine shock (even if it is so logical to the audience). They can only stand aghast and cover her corpse with a sheet during the "vision" of the opera's closing moments.

Ermonela Jaho replaced Anja Harteros in the title role at a late stage in the show's preparation. An acclaimed Violetta, she brings the same histrionic qualities to this role, and scores a huge and deserved triumph. In fact, her attractive lyric soprano lacks both the amplitude and edge--and some individuality--for this music (Harteros would have fitted the vocal bill more exactly). Nonetheless, the voice never becomes shrill or wiry even in the sorely taxing final scene, and she sings with great delicacy and musicality. She is surely a natural for Liu or Cio Cio San. As La Zia Principessa, Anna Larsson looks wonderful (a gaunt beanpole of a woman, hiding behind her finery) and fields ample tone which for me sounds a little unfocussed and lacks Italiante edge. Her acting, though, is utterly convincing. Other roles are small by comparison, but cast from strength. Anna Devin's Genovieffa is a delight and Elizabeth Woollett (nursing sister) and Gillian Webster (as the alms sister who first reports the arrival of Angelica's aunt) are both noteworthy. An hour of the most intensely powerful and wonderful music theatre.

A couple of restorative drinks later, Gianni Schicchi was welcome light relief and did not disappoint. Broadly traditional (once past the wonderfully ugly floral wallpaper and furnishings of the 1960s setting), the production derives its appeal mainly from its tight direction of the ensemble, as well as its subversive, un-operatic tone. Lucio Gallo is unrecognisable from his creepy Michele and sings the title role quite wonderfully, a spivvy chancer in a grubby T-shirt and jeans. The Rinuccio, Francesco Demuro, is new to me - a handsome man with a handsome voice, he gives a great performance as a character cut from the same cloth as his greedy relatives. Although Ekaterina Siurina looks a picture and sings prettily, there is little remarkable about her Lauretta, even if "O mio babbino caro" is dutifully applauded. The supporting cast, mainly British, is wonderful, although the star is Elena Zilio's Zita--venomous dynamite in a small package, handbag wielded like an Italian cousin of Britten's Mrs Sedley. I must also mention Scottish veteran Marie McLaughlin's earthily attractive, beehive-sporting Le Cieca (sadly Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans was unwell, but ably replaced by Liza Anne Robinson).

What an evening--long and emotionally exhausting but a triumph for Pappano, Jones and the company. It is good to hear that it will be broadcast to cinemas and released on DVD next year (cameras were present in the auditorium when I was there) but I hope there are plans for revival. Potential for some interesting casting if so (how about Amanda Echalaz anbd Elena Zilio as the soprano and mezzo leads in all three, for a start?). This production showed this wonderful, unusual trio of masterpieces off to its best advantage, and praise can scarcely come higher than that.

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