San Francisco Opera’s Il Trittico showcases several world-class vocal talents, who in the one-act format transition seamlessly among completely different roles. Paolo Gavanelli becomes Il Tabarro’s distraught, betrayed husband and then Gianni Schicchi’s hilarious, shrewd title-character lawyer. Patricia Racette transforms herself into Il Tabarro’s restless wife, Suora Angelica’s grieving nun, and Schicchi’s innocently romantic daughter. However, the minor characters and subtle staging innovations bring this triptych up from a decent show to a spectacular performance.
Each of Puccini’s one-acts follows a basic, coherent plotline, but with enough background action and distinctive supporting characters to add color to the pieces and remain engaging after audiences guess the ending. Il Tabarro’s Frugola, another discontented boatman’s wife who avoids adultery, deposits her frustrations and other odds and ends into a memorable purseful of junk. The food scraps she saves for her beloved cat, the stories behind each object she collects, and her dream of a country cottage remained with me longer than Giorgetta’s forbidden affair. And the working stevedores’ rough clothing and the half-lighting and simple sets befitting a wooden barge highlights the contrast between both wives’ dreams and the reality of their lives.
Suora Angelica’s convent, updated into a children’s hospital, sings with joyful Ave Marias and the chatter of cheerful sisters. We see the ladies playing with wheelchair-bound children, breaking small regulations, sharing innocent desires, and remarking upon water from a fountain turned golden with afternoon sunlight. They make the best of a clinical environment, perfectly staged with glaring indoor lighting, cold straight-backed chairs, and medicines in full view of patients and caregivers.
Such a life-affirming sensibility further adds to the tragedy of Angelica’s suicide and the emotional impact of her miracle vision. The vision, a child waiting to welcome her to heaven, might have seemed contrived in the hands of a less competent opera company. Yet the hospital, with its old-style frosted-glass door, provides the perfect way for the boy to appear ethereal yet believable.
Gianni Schicchi’s supporting characters include a corpse hidden in plain sight, a host of feuding, greedy relatives, notaries, doctors, and two guileless young lovers. Revered soprano Racette herself plays Schicchi’s daughter, one of the pair of lovers – demonstrating San Francisco Opera’s awareness of the importance of quality vocals for the entire cast and not merely relying on the strength of a scene’s main characters. Audience members chuckle at her famous “O mio babbino caro” – as Racette comes across as having a youthful crush on Rinuccio, which fits in with the piece’s charm. Schicchi and the various relatives’ over-the-top facial expressions and lyrical shows of emotion remind us this is a comedy, and the final pillow-fight in the black and white art-deco stage bedroom conveys a refined-sitcom sensibility.
For all three pieces, the orchestral music complements the action without overpowering the vocals or plot. Dramatic at tense moments and atmospheric when needed to set the pace and mood for action between arias, it provides the continuity Puccini intended when he designed these three acts to be presented together. Although the plots bear no relation to one another, a background motif of celebrating common, quirky, crazy humanity and life’s daily moments runs through the entire performance – helped along by the entire cast, crew, and orchestra of San Francisco’s Il Trittico.
Il Trittico currently shows at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. One production remains, a Saturday evening performance this October 3rd. You may visit the SF Opera website at www.sfopera.org for more information.