A play called La Houppelande (“The Cloak”) by Didier Gold, which Puccini saw in Paris in 1912, seems to have sown the seed of an idea to produce three one-act operas for performance in a single evening. The plot, set in the French capital in the early 1900s, centred on a barge tethered to a landing stage on the River Seine. Il Tabarro, as the Italian opera became, was finished in 1916. After a good deal of searching, Suor Angelica, the ‘nun opera’ as Puccini referred to it in correspondence with his librettist, was chosen to stand in sharp contrast to its predecessor. It was completed the following year and the third companion piece, the comedy Gianni Schicchi, the year after that. Even their collective name went through a metamorphosis – ‘Triangle’, ‘Trinomial’, ‘Tripod’ – before Puccini settled on Il Trittico (‘Triptych’). Il Trittico is still something of a misnomer, since it implies a degree of unity between the component parts, where, on the face of it, none exists. Indeed, it is the contrast between the three operas which composer and librettist made the priority.
Even though each plays for under an hour, it took but a few performances of tripartite evenings to convince even Puccini that three operas at a single sitting were too many. Since 1921, companies have nearly always programmed just two of the three, usually Gianni Schicchi and one of the others. Without the relatively light-hearted antidote Gianni Schicchi – even there there is a death in the family – Opera North’s choice of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica is a great rarity and an audience must brace itself for a double emotional mauling.
This Il Tabarro has been seen before. It was created as part of ON’s 2004 venture Eight Little Greats, various pairings of one-act operas with no more than 30 minutes in between them, designed to show off the facility of the Grand Theatre’s newly-installed backstage machinery. Then Adam Silverman’s atmospheric chiaroscuro lighting captured the grim, claustrophobic world of
Paris barge folk. As twilight yields to night, this intense drama takes on ever-darker tones. Immured in a now-joyless marriage, Giorgetta (this year, the marvellous Giselle Allen) sings radiantly of what might be with barge hand Luigi (David Butt Philip). Her suspicious husband, Michele (Ivan Inverardi) kills him and hides the body under his cloak. He is yet not yet finished with Giorgetta …
Suor Angelica is doubly claustrophobic, both in its setting, a 17th-century convent, and society’s intolerant contemporary strictures. Angelica (Anne Sophie Duprels) offends on two fronts: both her family and the Church condemn her in turn. Puccini, the consummate theatrical operator, proves masterful in his control of tension as the audience is gradually enlightened as to the dark secret she carries through this confined world. At the close, she dies, convinced that neither the spiritual nor temporal worlds will forgive her.
Michael Barker-Caven directs the new coupling, with Jac Van Steen in charge of the orchestral contribution.
Sung in Italian with English subtitles. Sat 01, Sat 08, Fri 14, Thu 20, Wed 26 Oct, Grand Theatre, Leeds, and touring until Fri 2 Dec. For more info see the Opera North website.