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Il Trittico

Jack O'Brien directs the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Puccini's gorgeous triptych. logo
Barbara Frittoli as Suor Angelica
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
It took Giacomo Puccini's Turandot several decades to establish a firm foothold in the operatic repertoire, but now it rivals the same composer's La Bohéme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly in popularity. Two major catalysts for this were the Metropolitan Opera production of 1961, designed by Cecil Beaton and starring Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli; and the company's even more lavish 1987 production, designed and directed by Franco Zeffirelli, which is revived almost every season.

Now the Met has given us a new look at Puccini's Il Trittico as envisioned by a quartet of theater veterans in their company debuts: director Jack O'Brien, set designer Douglas W. Schmidt, costume designer Jess Goldstein, and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Though imperfect, the production is good enough that it may well do for this gorgeous triptych what the Met's Turandot stagings did for that work.

Filled with ravishing music and masterfully orchestrated, Il Trittico consists of three one-act operas: Il Tabarro, about an illicit affair that leads to a crime of passion aboard a barge moored on the Seine in Paris; Suor Angelica, in which a cloistered Italian nun receives devastating news from her forbidding aunt; and Gianni Schicchi, a delightful comedy about a family group of venal Florentines who agree to an outrageous scheme in order to get their hands on the inheritance of a deceased relative.

O'Brien's skilled touch is frequently evident in the Met staging. The sexual attraction between Giorgetta (Maria Guleghina) and Luigi (Salvatore Licitra) in Tabarro is palpable, and the meeting of Sister Angelica (Barbara Frittoli) and her aunt, La Zia Principessa (Stephanie Blythe), in Suor Angelica is bursting with tension. O'Brien also does a wonderful job of moving the Angelica nuns in interesting patterns -- no surprise, considering that he helmed the epic Coast of Utopia just across the plaza at Lincoln Center.

But there are some directorial missteps, as if O'Brien had given less attention to certain scenes than to others. Though much of the byplay in Schicchi is sharp and funny, especially the moments involving Alessandro Corbelli in the title role, there are a few dead spots. Also, the murder scene in Tabarro is awkwardly staged and performed. (It should be noted that, on opening night, an indisposed Juan Pons yielded the role of Michele to his cover, a presumably less well rehearsed Frederick Burchinal.)

Another oddity of the production is that O'Brien has shifted the times in which the operas are set. The libretti for Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica specify no specific years of action, but Il Trittico had its world premiere at the Met in 1918, so we can assume that these were intended as tales contemporary to that time. Gianni Schicci, inspired by a character in Dante's Divine Comedy, is supposed to take place in Florence in 1299. But O'Brien has set the first opera in 1927, the second in 1938, and the third in 1959. None of the production notes that I've read explain these choices, but whatever the reasons, moving the action of Schicchi forward 640 years makes for more some distracting anachronisms.

On the plus side, the fabulous '50s costumes for Ciesca (Patricia Risley) and a couple of the other Donati relatives are wonderfully over-the-top. Goldstein also gets points for garbing Angelica's nuns in white, the better to contrast with La Zia Principessa in black. Among the most stunning lighting effects provided by Fisher and Eisenhauer are the blood-orange sunset that bathes the set and the characters in Tabarro, and the heavenly miracle that is granted to poor Sister Angelica.

All three operas are performed on a severely raked stage that helps in terms of sightlines but must wreak havoc on the performers' feet, legs, and backs. To employ such a steep rake was a highly questionable decision, but to Schmidt's credit, he does wow the audience with Tabarro's dingy barge and high, narrow footbridge, Angelica's church and garden, and the stunning scene change from Buoso Donati's bedchamber to a sunlit terrace in Schicchi.

It's no surprise that O'Brien would insist on a top-shelf cast of superb singing actors for this production. The highest honors go to Guleghina, Frittoli, Corbelli, and the amazing Blythe, whose vocal and dramatic morphing from the colorful ragpicker Frugola in Tabarro to the steely aunt in Angelica to the "old skinflint" Zita in Shicchi is a tour-de-force. Under maestro James Levine, everyone sings with total commitment, and the orchestra plays so magnificently as to beggar description.

If you have tickets to ll Trittico, congratulations; but you might want to carbo-load beforehand. On opening night, the show ran a full four hours and 15 minutes from Levine's first downbeat to the final curtain call, partly due to the inordinate length of the two intermissions. Perhaps things will move along more quickly in future performances as the stagehands become more adept at changing the massive sets from opera to opera. But even at 4:15, this is time very well spent.

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