, November 2009
Verdi and Puccini are often thought of as the last vestiges of the old order of classic Italian opera, men who delighted in grandiose melody and even more grandiloquent dramatic gesture. Most opera lovers are well acquainted with Puccini’s masterpieces, including La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot, Each of these famous pieces provides the listener with one glorious melody after another, all wrapped around huge “operatic” emotions and plot devices. In fact, there’s probably no “bigger” opera composer, in either the literal or more figurative dramatic sense, than Puccini. But he could do small, or at least smaller, as he proves in the incredibly sumptuous and at times equally incredibly touching Il trittico, a triptych (the literal translation of the title) of one act operas that finds the composer essaying more intimate stories, if at times no less mammoth musical ideas. Puccini decided to attempt one acts after the international success of his countryman Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana. Spanning the gamut from tragedy to comedy, Puccini flexes his compositional muscles in Il trittico, providing one ravishing moment after another, including one of his most famous arias, “O Mio Babbino Caro,” from Trittico’s finale, Gianni Schicchi, the only one of the trio to maintain even a tangential relationship to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the source material to which Puccini first turned when the idea of three one-act operas first came to him. While the liner notes to this release make a compelling argument that each of the three is linked, however tangentially, by the central idea of death, I’d argue that the linking element is in fact deceit. Il tabarro has the time honored operatic trope of an illicit affair, Suor Angelica features a tragic lie told to a nun who has, in fact, a deception of her own she’s been hiding, and Gianni Schicchi presents nefarious relatives scheming for an inheritance with an assumed identity making sure only true love is rewarded.
Though some critics have compared the first offering of Il trittico, Il tabarro, to Grand Guignol, the fact is despite a horrific denouement, the piece simply plays as “typical” operatic tragedy with mismatched husband and wife attempting to bridge their differences even as the wife considers a dalliance with one of her husband’s employees. This is the stuff of countless operas, at least in one form or another, but Puccini here slowly peels back the emotional layers until only pure, unadulterated raw emotion is left by the opera’s admittedly shocking ending. In fact a cogent case could be made that the entire hour or so of Il tabarro is little more than a prelude for the horrific finale, a finale that may strike some as too sudden and unresolved, despite the finality of one of the character’s fates. This is a splendidly sung performance, with a brilliant production design that almost cages the lead trio under the arch of bridge supposedly spanning the Seine. The claustrophobic nature of the piece is highlighted by television director Loreena Kaufmann’s use of unrelenting closeups. Kaufmann also (as she does perhaps to a slightly lesser degree in the two other episodes) finds some interesting camera angles, notably at the climax where she opts for a “river’s view” camera angle as Michele (Alberto Mastromarino) attempts to drown Luigi (Rubens Pelizzari), the man whom he suspects is having an affair with his much younger wife, Giorgetta (Amarilli Nizza). The drama of this piece is only slightly undercut by Pelizzari’s unfortunate scramble to wedge himself underneath Mastromarino’s cloak after he is supposedly deceased.
Suor Angelica was evidently Puccini’s own favorite of the three one acts included in Il Trittico and it in fact reveals the composer at his lushest and perhaps most traditional. Painting a musical portrait of a cloister affords Puccini an unmatched opportunity to exploit the glories of the female voice, both singly and in choral moments, and he does so with his typical flourish. It may surprise some to hear that Puccini had been studying two rather disparate (if historically linked) pieces, Wagner’s Parisfal and Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, as he simultaneously wrote Angelica and Trittico’s final work, Gianni Schicchi. While Puccini probably will never be thought of as a modernist, there are orchestral flourishes throughout Trittico that hint at a broadening of his tonal palette. That proclivity is nonetheless somewhat subdued in Suor Angelica, which remains ineffably lyrical and distinctly within 19th century tonal customs. Nizza here takes on a role almost diametrically opposed to her Girogetta, and acquits herself quite well, especially in the heartbreaking finale when Sister Angelica’s long ago sin comes back to literally haunt her. This is a lovely, if sparse, physical production, highlighted by some gorgeous deep blue lighting at the climax which heightens the emotional content considerably.
The finale of Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, is freely adapted from Canto XXX of Dante’s Inferno, but, strangely, is the only comic offering of the evening. In a physical production that draws on Commedia dell’Arte, this buffo is broad, over the top and if not especially laugh out loud hilarious, at least highly comical as it portrays scheming relatives out to reap individual rewards from elderly dying rich man Buoso Donati. Among the relatives is the only non-grasping one, Rinuccio (Andrea Giovannini), who hopes there might be enough of an inheritance for him to marry his love, Lauretta (Nizza yet again). When Rinuccio finds the will and discovers that Donati has in fact left his riches to a monastery, the pair enlist the aid of Lauretta’s father, Gianni (Mastromarino), who adopts the guise of Donati in order to dictate a new will. This is a fun and often very funny outing, highlighted by the most audacious production and costume design of the three one acts. Most of the stars wear outlandish wigs and even more outlandish costumes, all obviously modeled on dell’Arte. Nizza sings a glorious “O mio babbino caro” here, one of the highlights not only of this Blu-ray, but indeed of all opera.
Il Trittico may in fact, despite its most famous aria, may not be the best known of Puccini’s many offerings, but it shows the composer relatively late in life still forging new directions and exploiting innovative orchestral colors. I was consistently impressed by the gorgeous orchestrations throughout this piece, with one sumptuous minor ninth chord after another stunningly voiced for a variety of instruments. If you’re not familiar with this piece, this is a wonderful way to begin your introduction to the wide world of Puccini. If you are a fan of Il Trittico this production, despite a couple of missteps, offers a glorious production of some of Puccini’s most memorable music.
Il Trittico arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of TDK with a mostly excellent AVC encoded 1080i image. There really isn’t much color to speak of in Il tabarro, a piece which aptly mines a brown and beige palette to underscore its characters’ drab lives (lives that would almost be at home in O’Neill’s Anna Christie, for example). Suor Angelica likewise sticks almost exclusively to whites and blacks until the beautifully evocative denouement when suddenly we are greeted by some of the most amazingly well saturated cobalt blues you could imagine. It’s really Gianni Schicchi, though, which elevates this Blu-ray’s image quality. This is a delightfully colorful one-act, full of beautiful costumes and some bizarre makeup, and the Blu-ray represents it all splendidly. You’ll be able to see the fine silk filigree on several costumes, as well as the heavily applied pancake makeup on several characters. In fact the makeup is so well defined you can almost see discrete flakes of it. On the down side, there is occasional artifacting, including some edge enhancement and quite a bit of line shimmer on both hair and some of the striped costumes. Contrast, while pretty good, could have offered a bit more tonal separation as far as I’m concerned, with some of the shaded scenes become more than a bit murky.
Luckily there’s little if anything to complain about in the wonderful DTS HD-MA 7.1 soundmix (a PCM 2.0 fold down is also offered). What a gloriously varied score Puccini offers us here, and it’s also reproduced with brilliant fidelity in this recording. Everything from hushed moments with solo harps (and occasional accompanying clarinets) to more brash tutti brass comes across the soundfield with brilliant clarity. Singing is almost always relegated to the front channels, but the orchestral underscore nicely fills out the surrounds, bathing the listener in a warm and gorgeous sonic experience. Puccini is uncommonly delicate in his orchestration throughout Trittico, and nary a nuance is lost in this brilliant recording. There are no balance issues or anomalies like dropouts to report.
No supplements are offered on the Blu-ray itself. As is the usual practice, the insert booklet offers a good essay and synopses of the three one-acts.
I frankly wasn’t as familiar with Il Trittico as I am with some of Puccini’s warhorses. This is a beautiful set of three pieces and contains some absolutely gorgeous music. This is by and large an excellent physical production, and the Blu-ray only offers one or two minor things to complain about. Puccini fans should be delighted with this release.