Come to Finland for Il Tabarro. Stay home for the rest of Il Trittico.

22/05/2011

Puccini, Il Trittico: Finnish National Opera chorus and children’s chorus, Mikko Franck (conductor) at the Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, 17.5.2011 (GF)

Suor Angelica

Director: Johanna Freundlich
Sets & Costumes: Mark Väisänen
Lighting Design: Timo Alhanen

Cast:

Suor Angelica – Olga Romanko
The Princess – Sari Nordqvist
Sister Genovieffa – Anna-Kristiina Kaappola
The Monitor – Melis Jaatinen
The Abbess – Niina Keitel
The Nursing Sister – Anna-Lisa Jakobsson
Sister Dolcina – Dilbèr
Sister Lucilla – Hannele Aulasvuo
Sister Osmina – Hanna Husáhr
The First Tourière – Hanna Rantala
The Second Tourière – Ann-Marie Heino
Lady in Apple Tree – Marjorita Huldén
Child – Reetta Sivonen

Il Tabarro

Director: Katariina Lahti
Sets: Mark Väisänen
Costumes: Tarja Simonen
Lighting Design: Timo Alhanen
Video Design: Jenni Valorinta

Cast:

Michele – Hannu Niemelä
Giorgetta – Elisabet Strid
Luigi – Zoran Todorovich
Talpa – Koit Seasepp
Frugola – Riikka Rantanen
Tinca – Mika Pohjonen
Song Vendor – Juha Riihimäki
Young Lovers – Tuomas Katajala & Hanna Husáhr

Gianni Schicchi

Director: Ville Saukkonen

Sets: Mark Väisänen
Costumes: Taina Relander
Lighting Design: Timo Alhanen
Video Design: Jenni Valorinta

Cast:

Gianni Schicchi – Roberto de Candia
Rinuccio – Tuomas Katajala
Lauretta – Marjukka Tepponen
Zita – Anna-Lisa Jakobsson
Gherardo – Juha Riihimäki
Nella – Tove Åman
Gherardino – Johannes Lättilä
Simone – Jyrki Korhonen
La Ciesca – Ritva-Liisa Korhonen
Betto di Signa – Jussi Merikanto
Marco – Hannu Forsberg
Spinelloccio – Jukka Romu
Nicolao – Juha Kotilainen
Pinellino – Arto Hosio
Guccio – Kai Valtonen
Buoso Donati – Esko Mäkelä

Il Tabarro - Production Picture © Heikki Tuuli

Premiered on 13 May, this was the first ever production of the complete Trittico and the first ever Suor Angelica at the Finnish National Opera. Three one-acters, three different settings and three very different directors, promise well for a varied and entertaining evening. And it’s a long evening: almost four hours.

It opens with the weakest link, Sour Angelica. Sister Angelica is the girl who disgraced her family when having an illegitimate child, upon which she was sent to a nunnery. She has waited for years to hear from her family and when she eventually receives news through the Princess, she learns that two years earlier, her child – who had been adopted – fell ill and died. This is the final blow to the already guilt-ridden Angelica. She takes poison and dies.

Though Suor Angelica was Puccini’s own favourite of the three, it has remained the least often played and, to be honest, I have never been able to foster much enthusiasm for it. It is scored with Puccini’s usual professionalism and the eponymous heroine has some wonderful things to sing, but it unfolds slowly and never really catches fire. Others naturally feel differently and there were tears shed around me during the final scene.

The stage picture is striking: a big, heart-shaped apple tree – the tree of life – against a blue sky and with the nuns grouped around the tree. One of them – a mute role – actually sits in the tree throughout the performance. It is all like an illustration in a children’s book.

A large cast of singers is employed and they work well together, without making much of an impression. It’s around Suor Angelica and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Princess that everything revolves.

Olga Romanko, who was an excellent Rusalka in Helsinki less than two years ago, has made Angelica one of her specialities and she is touching in her fragility. She has a rich vibrant voice, at times maybe too vibrant and there are some signs of strain in the uppermost part of her register but generally this was vocally an outstanding performance. Sari Nordqvist was a formidable Princess, dignified and dominant. In the supporting cast there were a couple of wobblers but otherwise we were treated to some fine singing. General Music Director and Artistic Director Mikko Franck – who just a couple of days before the premiere announced that he is going to step down from his posts in 2013 – drew beautiful playing from the orchestra, the many transparently orchestrated passages making this a kind of chamber opera.

A chamber opera is what Il Tabarro definitely is not. Apart from its length – less than an hour – it contains all the ingredients of a full-size verismo drama: realism, strong emotions, love-hate relations and physical presence. The sexually charged scenes with Luigi and Giorgetta are heated, to say the least, and Michele strangling Luigi in the finale is comparable to Tosca stabbing Scarpia.

The sets are socio-realistic: grey, dirty, a worn barge, workers sweating and exhausted from heavy labour. Katariina Lahti has chiselled out individual characters, also of the minor roles, and with intensive acting from everyone all these ingredients sum up to one of the tautest and strongest productions I’ve seen in a very long time. No one with even the slightest interest in operatic realism should miss the opportunity to see this Tabarro. It is scheduled for the autumn of 2011 as well.

Through Mikko Franck’s punchy conducting I also got ample confirmation that this is possibly the strongest of Puccini’s operas: dark, ominous, oozing with power and emotions. There are no famous set pieces but the music is superbly dramatic and offers magnificent opportunities for spinto singers.

Katariina Lahti has been lucky to have three superb singing-actors for the central triangle. Zoran Todorovich, intense, virile and with expressive body-language, is the Luigi of one’s dreams and his tenor rings out with a glow, a passion and a brilliance that not even Mikko Franck’s knock-out conducting can swamp. Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid is the perfect counterpart to his passion. She is alluring, sexy and passionate, a bit vulgar as well and there are sparks flying in their duet. Hannu Niemelä, who gets better and better each time I see and hear him, sings the role of his life as Michele and produces heroic singing of a kind rarely encountered. The big-voiced Koit Soasepp and the experienced Riikka Rantanen are well cast as the secondary couple Talpa and Frugola and the lyrical singing of the young lovers, Tuomas Katajala and Hanna Husáhr is a touching counterpart to the dark relations in the foreground.

After these engrossing and exhausting insights into the abysses of the human soul, the colourful, buffa-turned-farce production of Gianni Schicchi comes as a blow in the solar plexus. It’s fun, it’s irreverent, it’s unbelievable, it’s larger-than-life, it’s everything that Il tabarro isn’t and whether one can stomach it after a night’s dose of verismo realism on the barge is an open question. There were several empty seats in the stalls after the interval.

When the opera begins, Buoso Donati is, according to the libretto, already dead. Ville Saukkonen has however added a sequence before the music starts, in which the hippie Donati, high on drugs, enters with two scandalous beauties, snorts some more cocaine – or whatever it is – and falls to the floor, stone dead. In other words, the medieval story has been transported to our century. When the relatives search for his will they find it  – in a laptop! Gianni Schicchi, coming to their rescue, appears in jogging gear. You get the picture? But Florence is still the centre of the action and we can see the town through a picture window – neon lit. To begin with, that is. Then the blinds come down and the whole farce is played in the closed room. The whole thing is a hilarious affair and only occasionally is there some seriousness. Gianni Schicchi actually burns in hell for his devious behaviour.

An Italian in the title role is always an advantage, and Roberto de Candia is not only verbally superb, he is also the proud owner of an excellent rounded baritone voice, as well as being a born actor. Tuomas Katajala and Marjukka Tepponen are both young and fresh, ideally suited to the roles of young lovers, visually and vocally. The showstopper in this opera is O mio babbino caro and it was sung simply and unaffectedly and with great warmth. The rest of the cast were in varied vocal shape, but well attuned to the farce elements. I can imagine Gianni Schicchi played in various other ways. This was one that worked surprisingly well, but I doubt I want to see it again.

The hands-down winner of the evening was Il tabarro, and I urge readers to go to Helsinki and savour it. A DVD would not be too bad an idea either – Ondine or Finlandia, please, note!

Göran Forsling

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