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Royal Opera at Covent Garden, September 12

 

Il trittico

 

Rodney Milnes

 

The Royal Opera and its audiences could scarcely have hoped for a stronger opening to the season. Puccini always brings out the best in Antonio Pappano, and in persuasively-paced accounts of all three scores he drew beautifully nuanced playing from the ROH Orchestra. The three panels of the triptych surely show the composer at the height of his powers, not least in the ingenuity of his orchestrations, and they benefit incalculably by being given together. This was an evening of boundless musical riches.

Richard Jones's productions of Tabarro and Suor Angelica were new, prefacing his riotous staging of Schicchi first seen in 2007. Angelica is of course the most difficult to bring off in the 21st century, as audiences cannot take the closing ‘miracle' as conceived by the composer, and Roman Catholics might have trouble with the Virgin Mary apparently condoning suicide, a mortal sin. Earlier, the sisters had been enjoined to pray for mortal sinners. Was Puccini being slyly subversive of established dogma?

The solution was to set the action in a children's hospital of the kind that nuns would, and indeed do, administer, nicely designed by Miriam Buether. Angelica was positioned at the dispensary counter. Of course one missed her garden, as in the original, the birdsong and the evening light on the fountain. But the gains, arguably, outweighed the losses, and an orphaned (presumably) child coming to her in her dying moments seemed a fair substitute in today's terms.

It might not have worked so powerfully had it not been for the intensely touching performance of the title role by the Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho. The hypercritical might want more edge and power in her middle and lower registers, but that pales beside the indefinable spiritual beauty of her portrayal and the musicianship of her singing, pure in outline and entirely free of any ‘operatic' striving for effect. Her firm, purposeful walk off stage to get the fatal pills and her repeated swallowing of them one by one was heart-rending. I was deeply, unashamedly moved.

The many smaller roles were well cast, especially Anna Devin's Genovieffa, Elena Zilio's Monitress and Elizabeth Sikora's Mistress of the Novices. One rather startling idea on Jones's part came in the central confrontation, most inventively directed. Anna Larsson's Zia Principessa looked formidable enough in her fox fur, but as the scene progressed she became increasingly agitated and insecure, as though acknowledging the enormity of the task she had been required to undertake.

By comparison Tabarro is pretty timeless, but what seems at first sight like an everyday crime passionnel gains more depth every time you see the work. Freudians can have fun with Michele's line about his pipe going out, but here is a man who has lost his child and is losing his wife into the bargain. Within Ultz's realistic design Jones directed an almost traditional production, though I am not sure what the office full of eavesdroppers added to the drama-if anything it diffused it. The smaller roles were, again, well cast-Alan Oke and Jeremy White as Tinca and Talpa, Irina Mishura a vivid Frugola, Ji-Min Park as the song seller and Anna Devin and Robert Anthony Gardiner as the lovers.

Eva-Maria Westbroek gamely allowed herself to look a bit of a fright as Giorgetta, a woman aware that she was in the last-chance saloon. Again, one might want a slightly more Italianate timbre to her soprano, but Westbroek is a force of nature and, like Jaho, her overall portrayal disarmed any criticism. The Latvian Aleksandrs Antoņenko (Luigi, house debut) displayed a beefy, Italian-sounding tenor, just the job. Was Lucio Gallo marginally miscast as Michele? His cleanly focused baritone, so ideal for Mozart, sounded a touch light, especially in the lower register, and somehow his music suggests a bigger man, more of a bruiser-Gallo is slim, well-made.

But Gallo came into his own in Schicchi, really singing the title role and showing an expert sense of comic timing. The Sardinian tenor Francesco Demuro made a more than promising house debut as Rinuccio, and Ekaterina Siurina was a lovely Lauretta, her aria rather more fluidly conducted by Pappano than in 2007. The smaller parts-this is turning into a mantra-were wonderfully cast, Marie McLaughlin back as La Ciesca, Rebecca Evans joining the company as Nella, Elena Zilio as Zita, the immortal Gwynne Howell as Simone, and so on, with Alan Oke (Gherardo), Jeremy White (Betto) and Robert Poulton (Marco). What riches the ROH has at its disposal. Jones's direction, I repeat, is a riot, but I do miss the window and the balcony in John Macfarlane's claustrophobic set.

Still, a glorious and rewarding evening.

 

Wexford Festival 2014
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine