Three dolours trilogy: Puccini, ‘Il trittico’, Scottish Opera

‘Il trittico’ – or, ‘The Triptych’ – is made up of three one-act operas, each roughly an hour long, that on the surface appear totally distinct. So much so, in fact, that companies often break the work up into something more manageable: presenting two parts as a double-bill, for example, or pairing one of the Puccini ‘thirds’ with another short piece deserving an outing.

As a result, when the opportunity comes round to see a full ‘trittico’, it already has the feel of a special occasion about it. Wholly fitting, then, that this new production by Sir David McVicar forms part of Scottish Opera’s 60th anniversary season: there’s a great deal to celebrate.

Puccini intended the three operas to be performed together, in order.

‘Il tabarro’ (‘The Cloak’) is a gritty, short-sharp-shock of a tale, careering through a plot involving adultery, murder and, perhaps worst of all, drunken riverside dancing. Our (anti?-)heroine Giorgetta, out of love with barge-owner husband Michele and still grieving the loss of their baby, starts an affair with stevedore Luigi. Michele is a step ahead of them, however: he murders Luigi and, in the opera’s closing seconds, steers Giorgetta towards the corpse, wrapped in the cloak the couple used to snuggle under in happier times. The curtain comes down to her scream.

‘Il tabarro’

‘Suor Angelica’ is more meditative, combining character study with heart-rending tragedy. Sister Angelica the quiet apothecary of the convent, always at hand with a soothing remedy. However, she’s there in the first place because her family wanted her safely put away after giving birth out of wedlock. After hearing no word from home for seven years, Angelica receives a sudden visit from her aunt, the Princess, who cruelly deals her a double blow: demanding she sign away her inheritance, and bringing news of her son’s death. Broken, Angelica takes poison. Suddenly fearing damnation, she pleads to God for mercy in her final moments and dies before a vision of her son.

‘Gianni Schicchi’, then, is the light relief an audience still pulling itself together after the second interval so badly needs. The extended family of Buoso Donati – recently deceased – gather around the deathbed in the hope of receiving handsome bequests, only to find that he’s left everything to a monastery. Rinuccio, the youngest of the clan and more or less the only one with actual redeeming features, is in love with Lauretta, the daughter of Gianni Schicchi. The other relatives – all snobs – despise Schicchi as a socially-inferior chancer. But it’s precisely for this reason that Rinuccio suggests Schicchi could help. Overcoming reluctance on both sides, the parties meet. Schicchi offers to impersonate Buoso (since no-one outside the house knows he’s dead) and dictate a new will in the family’s favour. In the execution, however, he turns the tables and names himself as main beneficiary, providing funds for the young couple to wed. The family can only watch, fuming, as to protest would reveal their part in the crime.

So, there is a deliberate progression of emotions through the Triptych: ‘Il tabarro’ sets the pulses racing, a melodramatic thrill-ride of romance and revenge; ‘Suor Angelica’ then elevates that distressed sympathy to a kind of redemptive high; before the farce of ‘Gianni Schicchi’ brings you out of the catharsis and sends you out of the opera house with a skip in your step.

In her fascinating programme notes, Alexandra Wilson draws out some of the ways that ‘Il Trittico’ hangs together thematically. For example, all the stories revolve around death – not only in terms of characters who die onstage, but in the way a death in the past provides a catalyst for the action. She also highlights the motif of escape, with all our central figures looking for a way out of the situation they find themselves in.

And the more one thinks about ‘Il trittico’ as a whole work, the more connections emerge. All three are twisted love stories of a kind: first, Giorgetta’s adulterous love for Luigi; second, Angelica’s love for her absent son, in conflict with her role as a bride of Christ; and third, the love between Rinuccio and Lauretta, enabled by Schicchi’s devious scheme.

‘Suor Angelica’

I also wonder about the extent to which Puccini might have been influenced by what we know about ancient Greek drama – format as much as content. The Greeks would have been familiar with seeing several plays in one go – the day’s entertainment typically comprising a full trilogy of tragedies, followed by a more light-hearted ‘satyr’ play. (Puccini didn’t go quite as far as four operas in one night!)

Perhaps it goes without saying that there’s a lot of punishment in both Greek drama and Puccini. But all three operas – even the comedy – foreground characters who display the textbook tragic/ironic traits of bringing about or influencing their downfall. Giorgetta and Luigi are adulterers, but their hubris in arranging trysts under Michele’s nose is the catalyst for Luigi’s murder. A cruel aspect of Angelica’s fate is that she’s ‘punished’ for her sin of seven years ago, but dies so quickly and readily because her skill at healing others also means she knows how to kill herself. Buoso’s family are humbled by their greed, with Schicchi an unlikely fury of righteousness. But also, Rinuccio ‘sells’ Schicchi to the relatives as a kind of wide-boy schemer. They’re happy to overlook his origins and harness this aspect of his character to their own ends – only to find that they would have been right not to trust him at all.

McVicar’s approach adds to the satisfying unity of the work. Despite the varied settings – docks, convent, bedroom – we seem to be in a consistent ‘McVicar-verse’ throughout. I felt that each opera had been given a look and feel similar to 20th-century film or TV treatments of similar stories: the subtle, careful lighting of ‘Il tabarro’ would become any film noir. The ‘nun movie’ – surely a genre in itself – might sound glib with reference to ‘Suor Angelica’, but I thought of ‘Black Narcissus’ in particular, which used bursts of brilliant colour to contrast with the monochrome environs and attire of the nuns – here the sun through the fountain and the potential blood symbolism of the Princess’s crimson dress (remember Sister Ruth’s rich, red lipstick?). The importance of Clodagh’s past before joining the order is also crucial to that film, in the way Angelica is trapped by her history. Finally, McVicar’s ‘Gianni Schicchi’ rejoices in the horrendous did-that-really-happen fashions and all-round musty beigeness of 70s soap and sitcom land.

‘Gianni Schicchi’

I was reminded of other McVicar productions I’ve seen – for example, the Royal Opera House’s current ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ or ‘Death in Venice’ from 2019, or 2017’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’, also for Scottish Opera – in the terrific sense of space he seems to create on stage, encouraging physically convincing, robust performances. The stevedores in ‘Il tabarro’ have the room – and strength – to convey their heavy labour before collapsing for the evening. Angelica doesn’t simply give soliloquies to the audience; she circles around her increasingly confined space, as if hunted. ‘Schicchi’ in particular benefits from the cast’s precision comic timing (plenty of which is encouraged by the score!) and the gleeful abundance of textbook farce manoeuvres, such as handling an unreliable corpse, or getting trapped in the furniture.

Every director taking on a full ‘trittico’ must relish the possibilities of casting singers ‘across’ more  than one of the operas to bring out certain features in the characters. This worked brilliantly here. For example, Louise Winter performed both the scavenging La Frugola in ‘Il tabarro’ and the grasping Zita in ‘Gianni Schicchi’. Sioned Gwen Davies played the equally implacable Abbess in ‘Suor Angelica’ and La Ciesca in ‘Schicchi’. In a lovely touch, Francesca Chiejina and Elgan Lŷr Thomas sang the young lovers who appear only briefly in ‘Il tabarro’, foreshadowing their major roles as the central couple in ‘Schicchi’.

But the night perhaps belonged to two major soloists who dominated the evening. Sunyoung Seo was both Giorgetta and Sister Angelica, while Roland Wood played both Michele and Gianni Schicchi. Clearly the contrasts here must have been deliberate: Seo playing two ‘fallen women’, one giving herself up to sin, the other approaching sainthood, while Wood transforms from an emotionally-stunted thug to a wily operator and loving father. Seo and Wood gave tour-de-force performances, each differentiating their two characters to a level beyond recognition, were it not for their remarkable voices.

I feel privileged to have seen such a powerful production of one of my favourite operas. While the Scottish Opera run is now over, it’s worth noting that this is a co-production with Welsh National Opera. They will perform ‘Il trittico’ in Cardiff in June 2024.


All production photography by James Glossop

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s