After four decades Il trittico returns to Vienna State Opera in a new staging by Tatjana Gürbaca

AustriaAustria Puccini, Il trittico: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Jakob Pitzer) from the Vienna State Opera, 7.10.2023. (JPr)

Il tabarro © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

I began a review about Il trittico in this way more than a decade ago, writing how it probably is a great night at the opera though I cannot say audiences really enjoy themselves because for two-thirds of the evening – each individual opera lasts about 55 minutes- it is very depressing, with the lightest of light relief only coming from Gianni Schicchi at the end. This varied trilogy of one-act operas – the darkly melodramatic Il tabarro, the emotionally overwrought Suor Angelica and joyously comical Gianni Schicchi, seem to have no reason to be performed together except that is how Puccini wrote them and how they were premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1918. Perhaps it was sheer expedience because Puccini’s compositional skills seemed on the wane at this point and he was lacking something else to fill an evening. Although each work in Il trittico has moments when Puccini could have, in my opinion, done a bit better with the material – which with some recycling from his earlier successes – he has undoubtedly left us with three operatic miniature near-masterpieces.

What Alexandra Wilson wrote in a programme for a Royal Opera Il trittico remains very perceptive: ‘Most importantly we need to bear in mind the fact that this was a work in which Puccini was casting a nostalgic and at times ironic eye across his career as a whole. Il tabarro harks back to the gritty Puccini last heard in Tosca, while Suor Angelica elevates the archetypal sentimental Puccini heroine to new heights. Gianni Schicchi, meanwhile, presents a veritable kaleidoscope of different musical styles, some more modern, some deliberately old-fashioned, its lightness of touch recalling the second act of La bohème. The contrasting panels of Il trittico, then, represents the different facets of Puccini’s own musical personality. To understand the complete Puccini, you really do need all three.’

In the past you rarely got all three, but now they are being seen more frequently together in the world’s great opera houses. Not long after Pinar Karabulut’s new production for Berlin’s Deutsche Opera (Mark Berry’s review here) is the new staging by the Berlin-born Tatjana Gürbaca in Vienna where the three operas have only been performed together twice before, 1920 and 1979.

Gürbaca seems to have treated Il tabarro  as something of an afterthought and what we see gets off to a slow start and you spend a lot of it wondering how what she presents us in the first part will lead us through the other two operas of the triptych. The answer is that very little will. There are some repeated scenic elements from stage designer Henrik Ahr in Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi but nothing that connects all three apart from a large neon sign Schwer Glück Sein mirroring Giorgetta’s words ‘How hard it is to be happy!’ when she expresses her grief over a dead child and desire for the stevedore Luigi. These words will change during the three operas, becoming Schwer Sein later in Il tabarro, Sein at the start of Suor Angelica and Glück is seen during Gianni Schicchi.

Il tabarro lacks the familiar grimy quayside, barge and claustrophobia and is not far removed from a semi-staging. At the back a number of figures repeatedly cross the stage and I expected these to be characters we would see later in the following two operas but no they aren’t exactly. Yes there is a pregnant girl who just may become Suor Angelica and there are some carnival figures who will be prominent in Gianni Schicchi but they are not exactly the same. In Il tabarro Silke Willrett’s costumes are colourful and fairly modern. Michele wore a dingy anorak, his wife Giorgetta looked like a mature Barbie, her love interest Luigi had a peach shirt and La Frugola (wife of stevedore Talpa) gave the appearance of a slightly blowsy former cheerleader.

Michele is mourning his lost son and spurns his wife’s affection. Giorgetta wants another life for herself away from the barge and her present despair; she latches on to the brawny Luigi to provide the means of her escape. This is played out on a brightly lit bare stage with the passersby at the back. The song seller who sings about ‘the story of Mimì’ to a musical reference from La bohème sells balloons and they are a leitmotif of Gürbaca’s Il tabarro. The lovers when they appear are in their underwear and will later have a large red heart-shaped balloon. Michele seems even slower on the uptake about what is going on between Giorgetta and Luigi than usual. A figure at the back with a bucket smears himself with something black as after a struggle Michele despatches Luigi before slitting his own throat.

Michaela Schuster (l, The Princess) and Eleonora Buratto (r, Sister Angelica) © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

I wasn’t expecting Suor Angelica to be so traditional (to a point). We were in a convent courtyard in front of a fairly low wall and with two podiums at the edges of the stage and just a single chair. The young nuns – who definitely look like nuns in grey dirndl-like habits – traipse in and discuss one of their number who has died as well as their own desires. Angelica has not heard from her family for seven years and it is her desire that they can be reunited sometime. When her stern, power-dressed aunt, the Princess, arrives it is to explain Angelica’s sister is to be married and that Angelica must sign a document renouncing her claim to her inheritance. Angelica asks after her illegitimate son who was taken from her seven years ago and is told he died of a fever. At this news the distraught Angelica signs the paperwork the princess wants her to. Puccini’s short opera which has still somewhat meandered to this point now rushes to it tragic denouement heavily influenced by the composer’s Madama Butterfly. Gürbaca has Angelica prepare to leave the convent before memories of her son leads her to commit suicide by ingesting glass from a broken mirror, she changes her mind too late choosing life over death and asking the Virgin Mary for mercy. Angelica dies reaching out for her son who did not die and is brought in by the returning princess.

Puccini planned to write each opera of Il trittico to reflect one of the parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy but in the end it was only Gianni Schicchi which was based on it; though in Gürbaca’s version this is not evident. There is no bed for the wealthy Buoso Donati to die in – by now I never expected one – and he is drinking wine and eating spaghetti at a table and listening to what sounds like patriotic songs and speeches which began during the interval between the operas. The low wall from before rises and we look to be in an underground bunker. There is a suggestion of Fascist Italy at the time of Mussolini but little is really made of this apart from the arrival of Gianni Schicchi who is clearly a populist figure and at the front a banner is unfurled proclaiming CONTRO IL FASCISMO.

Gianni Schicchi © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

Schicchi is in a suit and wearing an overcoat and trilby whilst Buoso’s greedy relatives who want his money for themselves – and not for it to go to the monastery that he named in his will – are mostly fantastically costumed for the ‘Florence at Carnival’ Gürbaca shows us. Schicchi double crosses them, and engineers the richest pickings for himself and his daughter Lauretta so she can marry Rinuccio, the nephew of Buoso’s cousin, Zita. Lauretta is part-Barbie, part-flight attendant on Alitalia and Rinuccio is in a fancy-dress field marshal uniform and prances around on his puppet donkey. One of the myriad other characters, Nella, is costumed as the Virgin Mary, perhaps a nod back to Suor Angelica, perhaps not? As ever we can enjoy a moment of musical genius from Puccini as there is a will-reading without words when the tension is palpable until the last page. There is a novel touch from Gürbaca who has Lauretta sing her eagerly-awaited aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ whilst showing her father her positive pregnancy test.

Most of the rest of the action exaggerates the farcical elements of the plot and without a bed you need to suspend more belief than usual when the Schicchi-as-Buoso dictates a new will and leaves the best stuff to ‘my devoted friend Gianni Schicchi’ to much general consternation. Stripping the ‘house’ of everything as they go all leave apart from Schicchi, Lauretta and Rinuccio. Glück lights up as the lovers sing a duet and Schicchi asks the audience’s forgiveness for ‘mitigating circumstances’.

In Vienna there were any number of exceptional singing actors across the three operas beginning with Il tabarro where luxury casting found perhaps the finest Wotan of this generation, Michael Volle, replacing an originally announced singer as Michele. I don’t know if he has sung the role before but anyway Volle seems capable of singing anything. He was as reliable as ever without looking entirely comfortable, with his careworn Michele sounding like his Scarpia at times. There was strident lyricism and vocal intensity from Anja Kampe as the angst-riddled Giorgetta, with Joshua Guerrero as the ardent Luigi. In Suor Angelica there was characterful ensemble singing from the various sisters with Monika Bohinec as a stern, unyielding Abbess and Michaela Schuster giving a vivid portrayal as the haughty, hard-hearted princess, though her dark mezzo-soprano seemed to lack the security of former times. Eleonora Buratto was extremely moving as Angelica with – and I am repeating myself here – her ‘Senza mamma’ and suicide having a touch too much of Butterfly about it. Though that maybe more due to Puccini than Buratto! Finally in Gianni Schicchi there was another compelling performance from Ambrogio Maestri, a colossus of a singer who is often as impressive vocally as he is physically. Less a charmer than the master manipulator and cunning schemer because he is more intelligent than those he is dealing with. Maestri, like Volle, was a late replacement as Schicchi and as good as he was I thought his voice was suffering the aftereffects of stepping in as Doctor Dulcamara at Covent Garden only two nights previously. In a performance that was very well sung by all concerned it was left to Bogdan Volkov’s impassioned Rinuccio and Serena Sáenz’s perky Lauretta to deliver near perfect accounts of their show-stopping arias and the closing love duet.

Vienna State Opera’s music director, Philippe Jordan, and his orchestra were on top form. As heard through loudspeakers there were appropriately detailed and atmospheric accounts of each work; whether it was solemn and weighty for Il tabarro, maudlin or vehemently intense by turns for Suor Angelica or endearingly light-hearted for Gianni Schicchi, Jordan sounded as if he had the perfect mastery over every idiom.

Jim Pritchard

Production – Tatjana Gürbaca
Stage design – Henrik Ahr
Costume design – Silke Willrett
Lighting design – Stefan Bolliger
Costumes design collaboration – Carl-Christian Andresen
Dramaturgy – Nikolaus Stenitzer
Chorus director – Martin Schebesta

Il tabarro
Michele – Michael Volle
Giorgetta – Anja Kampe
Luigi – Joshua Guerrero
Tinca – Andrea Giovannini
Talpa – Dan Paul Dumitrescu
La Frugola – Monika Bohinec
Song seller – Katleho Mokhoabane
Lovers – Florina Ilie and Ted Black

Suor Angelica
Sister Angelica – Eleonora Buratto
The Princess – Michaela Schuster
Abbess – Monika Bohinec
The Mistress of the Novices – Patricia Nolz
Monitress – Daria Sushkova
Sister Genovieffa – Florina Ilie
Nursing sister – Isabel Signoret
Alms sister – Anna Bondarenko

Gianni Schicchi
Gianni Schicchi – Ambrogio Maestri
Lauretta – Serena Sáenz
Zita – Michaela Schuster
Rinuccio – Bogdan Volkov
Gherardo – Andrea Giovannini
Nella – Anna Bondarenko
Betto di Signa – Clemens Unterreiner
Simone – Dan Paul Dumitrescu
Marco – Attila Mokus
La Ciesca – Daria Sushkova
Maestro Spinelloccio – Hans Peter Kammerer
Ser Amantio di Nicolao – Simonas Strazdas

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