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Three's Company

PETER G. DAVIS marvels at the craftsmanship of the trio of one-act treasures in Puccini's Il Trittico, which returns to the Met this month in a new production.

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Geraldine Farrar, as Suor Angelica, was one of the three leading ladies of the Met's 1918 world premiere of Il Trittico
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Florence Easton, as Gianni Schicchi's daughter, Lauretta
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Claudia Muzio, as Giorgetta in Il Tabarro (with Giulio Crimi as Luigi)
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The prospect of a new Metropolitan Opera production of Il Trittico surely would have delighted Puccini, and not just because he had given the Met the honor of introducing his three one-act operas on December 14, 1918. The composer always felt strongly that the trilogy was indivisible, and he became extremely upset when the works began to be produced separately almost immediately after the premiere. His unified conception, said Puccini, was being "brutally torn to pieces."

Indeed, after the initial run of Il Trittico, even the Met joined in the divorce proceedings, waiting until 1975 before bringing the three works together again. It was clear from the very first that the favorite of critics and audiences alike was the uproarious comedy Gianni Schicchi, which first returned to the Met torn from its original context in 1926, on a double bill with Pagliacci. After that, Schicchi was paired with such diverse partners as Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, Montemezzi's L'Amore dei Tre Re, Strauss's Salome and Elektra, and even Puccini's own La Bohème.Il Tabarro was revived more infrequently, but it, too, received new companions at least twice at the Met, when it served as a curtain-raiser for Donizetti's Don Pasquale in 1946 and for Pagliacci in 1994. Poor neglected Suor Angelica, Puccini's own pet among the three, has never found a new mate at the Met, where it has been seen only as first intended, the central panel of his triptych.

But then, just how unified is Puccini's conception? Each opera takes place in a completely different time and space. There are no obvious musical or textual cross-references, and the overall atmospheric nature of the three scores could not be more vividly contrasted. Some commentators have pointed out that the unifying thread is an omnipresent sense of death: the brutal grand guignol murder that brings the curtain down on Il Tabarro; the pathetic Angelica driven to suicide by the loss of her child; and the macabre presence of an actual onstage corpse throughout most of Gianni Schicchi, as the Florentine scamp of the title, from the dead man's bed, dictates a new will in his own favor. Yes, death is very much present in all three operas, but one could say the same about two-thirds of the opera repertory, including most of Puccini's output.

The fact is that audiences in 1918 were seldom inclined to mull over a work's interior meaning, more or less preferring to take their operatic entertainment at face value. Today's creative régisseurs take great pains to uncover hidden concepts and contemporary references that even the composer himself may not have realized were in his work. Operatic direction was a more down-to-earth matter back in Puccini's day. The battles he waged to get his pieces written and produced precisely as he conceived them centered more on devising effective stagecraft and finding appropriate singers than on worrying over abstract philosophical issues, which in any case never played much of a role in his largely practical theatrical temperament.

One fanciful but not unreasonable interpretation of why Il Trittico should be considered as a single unit - a theory that surfaced early on in the three operas' stage history - is the vague structural relationship it bears to Dante's Divine Comedy, an idea doubtless born from the fact that the character of Gianni Schicchi can be found in that great epic poem, consigned to torment in the Eighth Circle of the Inferno for the crime of forging a will. The true Inferno of this trilogy, however, is located in Il Tabarro, Puccini's most bleakly pessimistic opera, in which all the characters are trapped in a hell from which there is no escape. With Suor Angelica we enter a purgatory in which a poor soul doomed to sin and suffering on earth is offered eternal salvation, while the paradise of Gianni Schicchi is found in the sheer creative energy and glorious art of medieval Florence, as well as in the happy future of the ardent young lovers, Rinuccio and Lauretta. Admittedly this takes a pretty broad overview of the piece, and one that does not exactly lend itself to concrete dramatic representation, but the idea does hold a certain poetic charm.

Stratas <I>Suor</I>
Teresa Stratas, in 1989, was one of two
sopranos to have sung all three Trittico
heroines at the Met

© Beth Bergman 2007
Few other Puccini scores are more fastidiously composed than Trittico or show so much care over tiny but always telling details. Il Tabarro is especially full of striking inspirations, beginning with the silent rise of the curtain as the threatening gloom of Michele's sinister river barge reaches out to envelop us in complete silence. Then the river begins to move, life on its banks starts to stir, evil mists rise, and we hear it all reflected in the gentle modality of the lapping orchestral music. Yes, there is a bit of Debussy's La Mer here perhaps, and later on a brief echo of Stravinsky's Petrushka in the organ grinder's little bitonal dance, but this all belongs to the musical language of the day, and Puccini absorbs everything into his musical persona and makes it his own. No doubt some will regret the absence of the spontaneous outpourings of lyrical song that characterize the scores of La Bohème and Manon Lescaut, but that would be out of place here. Young romance doesn't stand a chance in this grimy world, and Puccini tells us as much in love music that twists and turns in on itself over relentless ostinato figures. The duped husband Michele dominates the latter part of the action, where the oppressively brutal thrust of his aria as he broods on Giorgetta's faithlessness makes him an even more frightening figure than Scarpia.

As in Il Tabarro, the first half of Suor Angelica consists mainly of mood painting that prepares us for the tragedy to come. No scene in Puccini is more lovingly set than this peaceful convent, with its round of everyday tasks, twittering birds, a purling fountain lit by a ray of sunlight, the gently tolling bells, and even the hee-haw of the two almoner sisters' little donkey. Angelica and Cio-Cio-San have a great deal in common, but the music that characterizes them could not be more dissimilar, especially "Senza mamma," the nun's hauntingly visionary aria after learning of her baby's death. On the other hand, the chilling portrait of Angelica's cruel aunt is unique in the composer's oeuvre; the arching music of her entrance, as Puccini biographer Mosco Carner so aptly describes it, "conjures up a reptile slowly rearing its head for its deadly thrust." The final apotheosis might legitimately be accused of being little more than religious kitsch - musical mysticism was not Puccini's strong suit - but it brings the piece to an effective theatrical conclusion and hardly undermines the overall delicate poignancy of this exquisite work.

<I>Gianni Schicchi</i> Set
A rehearsal for Richard Ordynski's world-premiere
production of Gianni Schicchi at the Met, designed by
Galileo Chini

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As Puccini's only comedy, Gianni Schicchi would be in a class all by itself even if the opera were not so delicious. If the farcical tone of the piece lies more on the surface than it does in Verdi's great human comedy, Falstaff, the opera to which it is most often compared, that in no way diminishes its witty brilliance and musical vitality. In terms of sheer pace, it moves more rapidly than anything else Puccini ever wrote, and its energy never flags. Only brief lyrical interruptions from the two young lovers interfere with the music's mercurial mad dash and the mordant flavor of transparent orchestral textures dominated by woodwinds. Precisely why the whole score seems to reflect the ebullient creative spirit of medieval Florence is difficult to analyze - perhaps one senses it in the surging musical image of the Arno River that courses through the arias of Rinuccio and Lauretta, or in the slyly learned contrapuntal orchestral figurations that sound in the orchestra as the fake will is drawn up by the self-important lawyer Ser Amantio Di Nicolao, or in the charmingly archaic vocal flourishes that embellish Schicchi's ironic farewell to his hometown. Perhaps only Wagner's Die Meistersinger compares to Gianni Schicchi by communicating a comparable sense of a closely observed community living in a completely defined, musically specific time and place.

No doubt there will always be operagoers who attend Il Trittico and come away preferring one opera to another, but the true Puccini connoisseur will be more than happy to savor them together, one after the other, exactly as the composer intended, and not worry too much about looking for arcane correspondences among them. Diva devotees will especially relish the opportunity Il Trittico offers to see three very different star sopranos in one evening. With Claudia Muzio as Giorgetta, Geraldine Farrar as Angelica and Florence Easton as Lauretta, the world-premiere performance must have been quite a glittering affair in that respect. On the other hand, as with Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann, it's sometimes even more fascinating if one soprano can pull off a tour de force by tackling all three roles. Renata Scotto and Teresa Stratas did so memorably at the Met, and at City Opera in 1967, the indomitable Beverly Sills made a one-time-only appearance in Puccini's triple-header.

In the end, though, perhaps it is enough to revel in the sheer creative virtuosity, theatrical craft, economy of means and superior quality of invention that characterize these perfectly polished scores, different as they are from one another. It's even possible to make a case for Il Trittico as the crowning masterpiece of Puccini's maturity, a far more finished entity and satisfyingly complete statement than that troubled operetta-manqué La Rondine of 1917, or Turandot, a torso left unfinished when the composer died in 1924. The unfinished Turandot contains magnificent pages, but one wonders whether the composer could ever have found the right music for the final duet of Calàf and Turandot, two idealized abstractions who always seemed alien to Puccini's genius for creating flesh-and-blood operatic characters inhabiting a fully imagined musical world. In Il Trittico, on the other hand, he found not just one but three dramatic tales that he understood completely. It's in the sheer perfection of their theatrical conception and musical execution that these fascinating operas finally attain a uniquely inseparable unity.

PETER G. DAVIS is the classical music critic for New York magazine and the author of The American Opera Singer (Doubleday, 1997).

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