Explore Puccini’s Il trittico
Welcome to a curated selection of content about Pacific Opera Victoria’s 2019 production of Il trittico, including articles from our Keynotes Newsletter, programme notes from the Artistic Director and Stage Director, a video trailer, and selections from media reviews.
An A to Z of Puccini
What makes Il trittico so special? Puccini is a big part of its appeal, of course.He was such a canny dramatist, a master of melody and orchestral colour, that anything he composed is irresistible. And Il trittico is Puccini on steroids – three operas in one breathtaking roller-coaster ride, serving up three wildly different stories.
Puccini’s last completed opera (Turandot was unfinished at his death), Il trittico (The Triptych) shows the composer at the pinnacle of his career, yet is less often staged than, say, Madama Butterfly or La bohème, which reliably return to opera houses season after season.
Yet Il trittico has been called Puccini’s greatest achievement … unflinching in its dissection of suffering, deft in its comedy of avarice and snobbery … an A-Z of Puccini (The Independent).
The work consists of three short operas – Il tabarro, a dark, moody thriller; Suor Angelica, a lyric tragedy; and Gianni Schicchi, a rambunctious black comedy. From the get-go, Puccini intended all three operas to be staged together. But that is a complicated and costly undertaking, requiring three different settings and a large cast and chorus. As a result, opera companies routinely program just one or two of the trio, and audiences miss out on the opportunity to experience the full dramatic power and thrilling emotional range of this masterpiece.
Critic Rupert Christiansen provides a helpful introduction to Il trittico:
To those with entry-level Puccini, I’d point out that Il tabarro has the taut psychological drama of Tosca, Suor Angelica the emotional intensity of Butterfly, and Schicchi the lightness and sparkle of the first two acts of Bohème, as well as the wicked mocking energy of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Il Tabarro (The Cloak)
This is the first and darkest of the trio. Michele and his wife Giorgetta live on a barge on the river Seine near Paris. As the life of the river goes on around them and the dockworkers and shopgirls ply their trade, the couple are mired in despondency: their child died a year ago and the tender nights when Michele would shelter his little family in his cloak are long over. Michele suspects that Giorgetta is unfaithful … and over the course of a single night their marriage comes to a brutal end.
The music is amazing. Hypnotic rhythms suggest the inexorable flow of the river and the undercurrents of the couple’s tragedy. The score evokes the hardscrabble lives of those who work on the river – you’ll hear the sounds of a tugboat whistle, car horns, and a hurdy-gurdy. Puccini conjures a Hitchcockian atmosphere against unexpectedly delicate, Debussy-like open harmonies that create an oddly tender portrait of a couple lost in despair and longing.
For Puccini, the river lay at the heart of the opera: The Lady Seine should be the true protagonist of the drama … the boatmen and stevedores dragging out their wretched existence in the traffic of the river … in complete contrast to the longing that throbs in Giorgetta’s heart … Love snatched at for the odd quarter of an hour is not enough for her. Her dream is to escape … to leave the cabin on the water where her child died… These are gleams and shadows that just give the crime a sharp and delicate flavour, like an etching.
Puccini’s favourite of the trio, Suor Angelica tells the heart-rending story of a young woman who has been immured in a convent for seven years for having a baby out of wedlock and bringing shame on her aristocratic family. One day, her aunt turns up unexpectedly, and Angelica’s heart is filled with wild, doomed hope.
Puccini’s eye for detail is striking, as he lovingly sketches a bleak world coloured with dreams of small pleasures, as the nuns confess their desires to see a lamb or to taste something delicious, and celebrate when a fountain glows gold in the evening sunlight.
The soundscape is gorgeous. Written for female voices alone, the opera juxtaposes ethereal choruses, delicate notes of church bells and birdsong, along with the kind of intense, over-the-top emotion only opera can convey. In this work, serenity and anguish are never far apart.
As critic Robert Hofler has remarked, In recent years the maudlin, tune-filled story has emerged as a major guilty pleasure. In essence, it’s the MGM score Puccini never lived to write.
The subject matter of Suor Angelica may not be fashionable (we rarely pack young women off to convents these days), but it can still reduce grown operaphiles to tears. As Rupert Christiansen wrote, If its climactic 15 minutes don’t mash you to pulp, opera just isn’t for you.
Il trittico culminates in the raucous swan song of Gianni Schicchi – the very last opera Puccini completed and, sadly, his only comedy.
Buoso Donati has just died. His body lies cooling in his bed, and his relatives are devastated – for they have found his will, which leaves all Buoso’s money – and his prize mule – to a monastery. Things look hopeless until the family ask for help from a clever rogue named Gianni Schicchi, who impersonates Donati long enough to fabricate a new will and win a dowry for his daughter Lauretta.
There are big questions in this opera. Will Buoso’s greedy relatives get their hands on his fortune? Will Lauretta be allowed to marry the man she loves? And who will inherit Buoso’s mule?
A zany tribute to the pleasures of avarice and skullduggery, Gianni Schicchi lets us root for the most cunning of villains – one that Dante condemned to the Eighth Circle of Hell.
Gianni Schicchi (yes, he was a real person) is mentioned briefly in Inferno, the first part of Dante’s epic Divine Comedy. Schicchi appears as a rabid demon who mangles others in his frenzied rage. His punishment for impersonating Buoso Donati and forging his will is to spend eternity attacking and biting other denizens of Hell.
Schicchi is among some 70 of Dante’s contemporaries who turn up in Inferno, where they are subjected to gruesome torments by the poet’s spiteful pen. Buoso Donati is also a historical character, one of several members of the powerful Donati clan who litter the Divine Comedy. (Dante’s wife Gemma was a Donati, which may explain his desire to punish Schicchi for ripping off the family.)
Puccini is much kinder to Schicchi than Dante and gives the last word to his hero, who speaks directly to the audience at the end of the opera, telling us that he really ought to be forgiven for his crime.
The music of Gianni Schicchi is a riot. Critic Anna Picard has said, The suavity, sexiness and wit of the score is irresistible. The big hit is O mio babbino caro, a gorgeous tune that is not, as one might expect, a love song, but a teenage tantrum – Lauretta essentially tells Schicchi, Daddy if you don’t let me marry the man I love, I’ll just die (literally – for she threatens to throw herself off a bridge if she can’t have her way.)
The Creation of Il trittico
As early as 1900 (just after Tosca had hit the stage) Puccini floated the idea of a trilogy of one-act operas. But it was over a decade before the first of the trio emerged. In 1912 Puccini saw the one-act play Le Houppelande (The Cloak) by Didier Gold in Paris and was struck by its atmosphere and its Grand Guignol character – referring to the Paris theatre whose name was a catchphrase for lurid melodramas that were often presented in a triple bill with a sappy play and a black comedy.
Things gelled in 1917, when librettist Giovacchino Forzano showed Puccini a sketch for a one-act play set in a convent. The composer, whose sister was a nun, loved the concept and happily set to work on Suor Angelica. Forzano also broached the notion of an opera based on a few throwaway lines in Dante’s Inferno. That became Gianni Schicchi.
Il trittico premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1918, just a month after the end of WWI, with Puccini still stuck back in Europe.
From the beginning, Gianni Schicchi was the most warmly received of the three operas. It still turns up frequently, usually torn from its siblings, forced into a marriage with some other work such as Pagliacci, Hänsel und Gretel, Bluebeard’s Castle – even Buoso’s Ghost, Michael Ching’s sequel to Schicchi. In 1934 a reviewer decried the Metropolitan Opera’s “grotesque” pairing of Schicchi with Strauss’ Salome. The Met continued to program this odd couple over a half dozen seasons and in 1938 even used Schicchi (in English) as a warmup act for Strauss’ blood-soaked psychodrama Elektra.
Looking for Missing Links
Critics have long indulged in the game of dissecting Puccini’s intentions and looking for themes that link the three operas. Are they a journey from hell to heaven à la Dante? (Early on, Puccini had thought of writing three operas, each representing one of the books of the Divine Comedy, but in the end only Schicchi holds up a funhouse mirror to Dante’s vision of hell.)
Other themes have been teased out: death, presented with brutality, then grace, then cynicism (never mind that death tends to pop up in a lot of operas). Parental love is another thread, evident in the grieving parents in the first two works and Schicchi’s affection for his daughter in the third. And all three operas end with a character asking pardon – for adultery (Giorgetta), suicide (Angelica), and fraud (the cheerfully unrepentant Schicchi).
Musicologist Fedele d’Amico suggests that Puccini’s purpose is simply to show that he can write three operas having nothing in common but this: to be completely different from each other.
Perhaps it’s enough, in the words of critic Peter Davis, to revel in the sheer creative virtuosity, theatrical craft, economy of means and superior quality of invention that characterize these perfectly polished scores … the crowning masterpiece of Puccini’s maturity.
A Landmark Canadian Production
Stagings of Il trittico in its entirety are rare. But the opera represents Puccini at his finest, and it is surprising that it has been staged only once before in Canada. That was in 1971 at the short-lived Opéra du Québec (not the present day Opéra de Québec).
The artistic director at the time was Léopold Simoneau, who would later move to Victoria and found Canada Opera Piccola. The role of Michele in Il tabarro was performed by Bernard Turgeon, an operatic legend, admired pedagogue, and, in his later years, an Elk Lake asparagus farmer. Bernard performed internationally over a stellar 57-year career, created the role of Louis Riel for the Canadian Opera Company, and performed in multiple Pacific Opera productions during the 1980s and 1990s.
Also in the 1971 production was the fine pianist Louise-Andrée Baril, who is the répétiteur for Pacific Opera’s 2019 production! After a hiatus of nearly 50 years, Pacific Opera was thrilled to bring Il trittico to a Canadian stage, reuniting its three brilliant operas, as the composer would have wanted.
Notes from the Artistic Director
Arnold Schoenberg loved and admired Puccini; even more astonishing, so did Anton von Webern, that most significant cartographer of the musical Sackgasse (dead-end) known as Serialism. Why were they able to ignore – to defy – the tendency, notable in some contemporary writings, to dismiss the Italian’s oeuvre as so much sentimental clap-trap? Even those musicians who resist the heart-on-sleeve directness of Puccini’s capacity to summon intense emotion, when they open one of his scores, cannot for a moment deny the virtuosic application of minute attention to detail in the writing – an absolute mastery of the composer’s craft.
Il trittico is Puccini’s most mature completed work – a conclusive, consciously intended demonstration of his dramatic genius and range of expression. Typically, along the line of its dramatic arc, felicities abound in each of these three settings. Allow me to mention a very few – to share the delight I have found in preparing this performance.
An old opera joke goes like this: What is the greatest French opera? Answer: Il tabarro!
Puccini’s uncanny ability to project a sense of place (Butterfly being only the most obvious example) is nowhere better felt than in Il tabarro’s opening measures. In place of an overture, he writes a little tone poem that puts us immediately on that barge in the Seine (Debussy would have taken a lot longer), while giving us the resigned, muted affect of these workers with their life of relative drudgery. The theme returns several times, providing a musical ‘backdrop’ to a series of vignettes, and eventually to the fateful triangle of its principal characters.
Puccini often visited his sister, a nun, in her convent, and so absorbed the quiet simplicity of the life of the order. Notice how he gives each of the nuns with solo lines her own tiny profile, yet conveys the discipline each has assumed despite small ripples of rebellion.
The anguish of Angelica, crushed by the hypocrisy of contemporary mores, represented by the resolute (but surely not entirely unconflicted) Principessa, her aunt, evokes powerful music indisputably among Puccini’s greatest inspirations. That this was Puccini’s favourite of the three operas may have something to do with those brotherly visits, but also with his descent from a line of church musicians – clearly this is a milieu and a vocabulary with which he is completely at ease.
Gianni Schicchi, in his closing address to the audience, himself invokes the greatest of all Florentines, from a reference in whose Inferno this tale is spun (it seems Dante’s relatives were duped in this way by an actual Gianni Schicchi).
We know Puccini’s great sense of humour and his genius at martialling a large cast in a sort of controlled chaos (La bohème Act II). Schicchi is its apotheosis. Every one of the many ensembles has vivid, particularized wit, the writing sure and scintillating.
I hope you will find this special journey as thrilling, and as satisfying as we all have. I wish you a great evening of kaleidoscopic music theatre!
One of the great pleasures of staging Il trittico as a whole – as Puccini passionately desired it should be – is the rare opportunity to present three richly different works within the framework of a single performance. Each of Il trittico’s parts is on the surface radically different – tonally and theatrically. Yet, when the work is viewed as a whole, strong thematic links begin to emerge and enrich the experience … making the whole greater than its individual parts.
The idea of entrapment is central to each opera. Il tabarro’s gritty verismo look at working class life centres on a couple trapped in a barren marriage. Dreams of simple pleasures haunt all of Il tabarro’s characters, and when Giorgetta dares to seek freedom from the world that smothers her, the results are an ugly death.
In Suor Angelica, the surface tone is radically different. Serenity fills a religious life of service and calm acceptance. Yet Angelica – against the explicit wishes of her order – does dare to hold onto a dream. With all her being, she longs to be granted the right to see the child taken from her at birth. When this dream is crushed, she directs her pain inward and death is again the haunting result.
In the final part of the trilogy, Puccini turns from darkness with a delicious commedia style romp – and brilliantly demonstrates that entrapment also has rich comedic possibilities! His wily Gianni Schicchi is able to entrap an ‘aristocratic’ family because of their own greed … resulting in one of opera’s best loved comedies.
While staging Il trittico, I wanted to explore the different emotional landscapes of each piece yet still maintain a coherent visual context for the whole evening. All three pieces now take place in 1918, so the gritty dockside world of Il tabarro is as Puccini originally envisioned. The soaring space of Suor Angelica is still a convent – but now the Sisters are a working order of nurses, dealing with the soldiers wounded in the war. And finally, just as Puccini wanted to give the gift of laughter to his audience at the end of Il trittico, we have a travelling troop of players present the classic commedia tale to the patients and Sisters of the Convent Hospital.
The overwhelming talent of the enormous Il trittico company has made creating this production an utter joy … please enjoy!
Videos & Reviews
Opera Canada Review
Pacific Opera Victoria has a reputation for taking on operas that larger companies avoid, often for good reason. However, based on the company’s brilliant production of Puccini’s Il trittico … those larger companies need to rethink their programming. Yes, it’s an oddity: three one-act operas set in different times and places, with no obvious musical or thematic connection … Yet each, done as radiantly as they were in Victoria, can stand up against the best of Puccini’s full-length crowd-pleasers…
By combining great direction and design along with some really superb singing and an orchestra at the top of its game under Artistic Director Timothy Vernon – POV created what might be the best thing it has ever done. At least so far.
In an incredibly clever conceit by director Glynis Leyshon, all the operas are linked… The barge in Tabarro is docked right next to the convent hospital where Suor takes place, and the patients in the hospital are entertained by a troupe of commedia performers with a play-within-a-play version of Gianni Schicchi, with the actors interacting with the hospital patients, and even with the conductor. It’s a brilliant idea….
A great 3-in-1 production with something to offer for everyone.
Puccini’s Il Trittico seemingly has it all: a jealous murderous husband, a crazed suicidal nun and gut-busting Marx Brothers-style laughs.
Overall, it’s a delicious dog’s breakfast of operatic excess and, in the hands of Pacific Opera Victoria, a superb evening that cannot be missed…
Under Timothy Vernon’s baton, the Victoria Symphony nimbly navigated a cornucopia of musical styles with sensitivity and attention to dynamics. And Leyshon’s bold directorial approach — intelligent, lively, unceasingly entertaining — is a testament to her considerable talent.
For opera singers … having the chance to do Il trittico where … they’re playing such different roles … how fabulous – literally a once in a lifetime opportunity…
This is a once-in-a lifetime event. I loved the show, and the audience that was there with me … loved the show.