Sunday, 6 March 2016

Il trittico, Royal Opera, 29 February 2016

Royal Opera House

Il trittico

Michele – Lucio Gallo
Giorgetta – Patricia Racette
Luigi – Carl Tanner
Tinca – Carlo Bosi
Talpa – Jeremy White
Frugola – Irina Mishura
Song Seller – David Junghoon Kim
Lovers – Lauren Fagan, Luis Gomes

Suor Angelica

Suor Angelica – Ermonela Jaho
Suor Dolcina – Elizabeth Key
Monitress – Elena Zilio
Suor Genovieffa – Lauren Fagan
Suor Osmina – Eryl Royle
Mistress of the Novices – Elizabeth Zikora
Abbess – Irina Mishura
Princess Zia – Anna Larsson
Novice – Katy Batho
Nursing Sister – Jennifer Davis
Alms Sisters – Emily Edmonds, Renata Skarelyte
Nuns – Tamsin Coombs, Kiera Lyness, Anne Osborne, Amy Catt, Cari Searle

Gianni Schicchi

Gianni Schicchi – Lucio Gallo
Lauretta – Susanna Hurrell
Zita – Elena Zilio
Rinuccio – Paolo Fanale
Gherardo – Carlo Bosi
Nella – Rebecca Evans
Gherardino – Gabriele Montano
Betto di Signa – Jeremy White
Simone – Gwynne Howell
Marco – David Kempster
La Ciesca – Marie McLaughlin
Maestro Spinelloccio – Matteo Peirone
Ser Amantio di Nicolao – Tziano Bracci
Pinellino – Simon Wilding
Guccio – David Shipley
Buoso Donati – Peter Curtis

Richard Jones (director)
Sarah Fahie (revival director, Il tabarro and Suor Angelica)
Benjamin Davis (revival director, Gianni Schicchi)
Ultz (set designs, Il tabarro)
John Macfarlane (set designs, Gianni Schicchi)
Miriam Buether (set designs, Suor Angelica)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting, revived D.M. Wood)
Sarah Fahie (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Nicola Luisotti (conductor)

Until last summer, when I saw Opera Holland Park’s excellent production, I had never seen Il trittico as a whole in the theatre, something I had been intending to remedy for a while. Such was perhaps easier said than done, given that complete performances, whilst probably less rare than at one time they had become, are less frequent than one might expect. (Alexandra Wilson’s programme note was interesting on that subject.) At any rate, I wanted to wait for the right occasion, and OHP has a very good track record in Puccini. Now I have seen another, which seemed to me almost, yet perhaps not quite, as successful, but which should surely disappoint no one. That quite a few friends – I learned this only afterwards, so it did not colour my expectations – had been disappointed on the first night, especially in vocal terms, I find surprising; I have no reason to doubt them or their judgement, but can only say that, going on the second night, my experience was different; it was, after all, a different performance, and such is the magic – and indeed the frustration – of a performing art. Even the weakest of the three operas, considered purely vocally, was only comparatively so.

I will admit to a little disappointment that Richard Jones seems to have made little, if any, effort to unite the three operas. Three is no iron-clad rule which says one must, of course, but surely it would be interesting at least to make the attempt when the director is common to all three. It is, after all, perfectly clear how different they are on the surface; what, however, if one digs a little deeper? Yes, one can – and should – do one that oneself, but to say there is no need for a director to do so comes close to saying that there is no need for a director, at least in the strong sense, at all. Ably revived – with the caveat that I had only seen the Gianni Schicchi before, when it was paired with L’Heure espagnole – by Sarah Fahie and Benjamin Davis, there was, however to these stagings no doubt concerning the Personenregie nor the general sense of theatre. Jones treats Il tabarro as one would usually expect it to be seen, in naturalistic fashion. If I am honest, I was relieved to be spared his usual visual trademarks – no flock wallpaper, thank goodness! – and being set when and where it ‘should’ be makes a good deal of sense. (Not, I hasten to add that it must be, and if one were seeing the opera all the time, one might think differently.) It is atmospheric, though, and the designs – surely that is crucial, if one is going to be naturalistic – convince in a realistic fashion. There is perhaps more than a hint of Zola, or at least that this is recognisably of Zola’s world. The barge convinces as a barge, as do Ultz’s handsome street designs and Nicky Gillibrand’s costume designs. Paris, the very particular Paris of these workers by the Seine, emerges as perhaps the central ‘character’, and that is surely a good thing.

I am less sure about the children’s hospital ward setting of Suor Angelica; it feels a little contrived throughout, and especially at the end. Indeed, substituting for the nun’s vision a child running forward to hug her comes across, whatever the intention, as kitsch sentimentality, which is the last thing Puccini needs. Anti-clericalism is one thing, Puccini’s thing, although ultimately not a very interesting thing; this, for me, is another, something which seemed unable to take religion seriously at all and which was therefore to be found lacking. A full-on, atheistic attack – admittedly, of the post-Voltairean variety, and yes I know Voltaire himself was a deist, rather than the silly contemporary nonsense of Dawkins et al. – might be interesting; this is not it. Within these confines – and admitting, again, the excellence, on their own terms of the designs, this time by Miriam Buether – the story is told well enough, at least until the end.

Gianni Schicchi is, as one would hope, full of life, well observed, and certainly seems to respond to the music. Presumably Sarah Fahie’s movement coordination deserves credit there. It might not dig so deep as Calixto Bieito’s production for the Komische Oper,Berlin, despite their surface similarity, and of course the latter’s brilliant pairing with Bluebeard’s Castle – now there is an example of someone pursuing a compelling line through two operas – renders the comparison problematical. Having seen Bieito, I found this a little too obvious in its ‘zaniness’, a little lacking in a sense of what the work might mean. There is little, nevertheless, that should really trouble anyone, save for those ultra-reactionaries who object to the business of updating ‘on principle’. How I wish, though, that the audience could have been at least a little more quiet! Its incessant laughter was disruptive and wearying. (Is the opera really so funny that people cannot control themselves?) Applause following ‘O mio babbino caro’ suggested as strongly as audible sighs when that aria began that the perpetrators had little sense of irony, nor of the audible and visual (cinematic still) inverted commas around it. Whatever they were doing, they were certainly not applauding ironically, with a sense of the metatheatrical.

The real continuity came from Nicola Luisotti’s excellent conducting of the orchestra. To begin with, I wondered whether the orchestral sound in Il tabarro were a little too pastel of shade. However, it increasingly drew me in rhythmically, and soon I noticed and responded to the close connection with harmonic rhythm. Colour and its variation, rhythm and its variation, harmony and its variation: these and their interconnection progressed as if the score were plotting the course of the River Seine itself. That, arguably, is very much part of what it is doing. I was able to hear to an unusual degree the opera as a masterly symphonic poem with voices. That certain rhythmic figures and their development found their way into Suor Angelica was even more striking. Musical differences asserted themselves too, of course, but the sense of unity and diversity missing from the staging was undeniable in the pit. Gianni Schicchi’s scherzo-like writing thrilled as it should: with the quickfire alternation and sheer variety of character-voices above, I felt again that the truest action was in the symphonic poem so brilliantly played. Luisotti was economical with climaxes; however, my doubts as to whether he was perhaps being a little too parsimonious were readily assuaged by his long-term strategy, ably put into practice by the Covent Garden orchestra, sounding as Puccini players to the manner born.


Vocally, this felt somewhat like a ‘company’ night. The Royal Opera may not really possess a company in the old-fashioned sense; more is the pity. Nevertheless, there was considerable strength in depth and a true sense of cooperation, both between singers and between them and the production. Il tabarro, as I said, was somewhat less impressive in straightforward vocal terms, although Lucio Gallo’s relative dourness was surely part of his portrayal of Michele. Carl Tanner’s Luigi and Patricia Racette’s Giorgetta had impressive moments, although they were not so sustained as one might have wished. Irina Mishura was an arrestingly spirited Frugola. Ermonela Jaho’s Suor Angelica was properly sympathetic, indeed heart-rending; if her vocal strength is not sustained equally throughout her range, then that is the case with a good many singers. One employs what one has, and this she did very well; there was no doubting her honesty of portrayal and her commitment. Lauren Fagan’s moment as Suor Genovieffa, admitting her desire once again to hold a lamb, was touching indeed. Anna Larsson gave a remarkable performance as Princess Zia, her cold dignity scene-stealing; what a splendid contrast with the Wagner and Mahler in which I have most often heard her! Elena Zilio shone both as the Monitress and still more as Zita, the focal point – arguably more so than Gianni Schicchi himself – of activity in the final opera. Her stage and vocal presence were as one. Gallo’s more energetic – how could it not be? – performance as Schicchi clearly sprang from the words with, dare I say it, a native Italian ease. Gwynne Howell showed that he still very much has ‘it’ as Simone. Susanna Hurrell and Paolo Fanale offered youthful, fresh-tone relief as Lauretta and Rinuccio. As elsewhere, though, everyone contributed to the evening’s success. This was a properly human comedy.



Alexander said...

I was there on the same night, and was glad that you shared my admiration for Luisotti's conducting; there had been some negative comments in the press, but perhaps it had come together in the interim. I felt the orchestral colour of Puccini's score came over beautifully and tellingly. In the same week, I saw the Opera North Andrea Chenier (itself a work of reasonable distinction, with a genuine dramatic efficacy and some musical intelligence, in an admirable production), and the experience of seeing both in close proximity reminded me why Puccini is the composer the world remembers.

But I have to disagree about the setting of Suor Angelica; I found the climax breathtaking. Offering a rational explanation of the miracle is not necessarily a wholesale dismissal of Angelica's faith; one may, if one pleases (as your review implies you did), take the sick child's appearance as a tragic irony and assume that Angelica's belief in her salvation is a delusion, but she has, after all, repented, and may yet be saved. For me, the ROH staging opened up three possible interpretations: a) the boy's just a boy; religion is false; Angelica is dying and there's nothing afterwards; or b) the boy, though not her dead son, represents him and is a tangible sign of God's forgiveness, so she's saved, or c) possibly worst of all, mistaking the boy for her son, she takes it as a token of God's forgiveness; but she's mistaken; he's just a boy; God has not forgiven her, and she's damned.

Also, while I too found the audible sigh at the strains of Babbino Caro slightly offputting, this was the first time I've felt the aria felt like it belonged to the comedy - which maybe had to do precisely with the jokey way in which the production signified those "quotation marks" you discuss in your review, with Schicchi's hand hovering at the door. Many in the audience may not have felt the irony, but I'm sure some did; and after all, you can be non-ironic in your applause for well-staged irony!

I had also loved last summer's Holland Park production, but I think on balance I just preferred this one.

Finally, a single factual correction: set designer for Schicchi was John Macfarlane, not Ultz.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, Alexander, both for your comments and for the correction. I've now amended the review accordingly.