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Il Trittico, Welsh National Opera review - another triumph for a hard-pressed company | reviews, news & interviews

Il Trittico, Welsh National Opera review - another triumph for a hard-pressed company

Il Trittico, Welsh National Opera review - another triumph for a hard-pressed company

Puccini's varied demands met con bravura

'Gianni Schicchi' WNO cast Images - Craig Fuller

It’s somehow typical of the Welsh National Opera I’ve known now for the best part of sixty years that it should confront its current funding difficulties with brilliant productions of two of the more challenging works in the repertory.

The company’s marvellous Death in Venice is for the time being water under the Bridge of Sighs, but now it has come up with a superb staging of Puccini’s complicated triptych of one-acters, a rarity no doubt partly because of its length and rehearsal and casting demands. 

Admittedly it’s a co-production with Scottish Opera and was seen in Glasgow just over a year ago with a different cast. This will have mitigated the cost but not much else. Puccini requires three totally unrelated settings and three quite different emotional environments: crime passionelle on a Seine barge circa 1900, blighted motherhood and redemption in a 17th century Italian convent, and will forgery in 13th century Florence. 

Suor Angelica: Tichina Vaughn as The Princess, Alexia Vougaridou as Sister AngelicaDavid McVicar’s staging, skilfully directed for WNO by Greg Eldridge, makes no attempt to unify these contexts, except perhaps to the extent of discreetly updating them to roughly the same sixties period. We get a trio of sets, by Charles Edwards, vividly imagined to project the specific atmosphere of each opera, and with no attempt to squeeze them into a single concept (and if you think this couldn’t be attempted, you aren’t a recent opera-goer). This may not be quite Puccini at his consistent best, but it still makes, here, for an absorbing, highly enjoyable and suitably exhausting evening.

The first opera, Il Tabarro, is to my mind the most underrated of the three. It moves slowly to its climax, with the barge-owner Michele’s murder of his wife’s lover (an ending obviously inspired by Verdi’s Rigoletto), but it achieves an intensity of colouring and even a certain psychological richness on the way. And interestingly the passion and violence come without a single act of villainy before the actual murder, unless adultery is that – though Giorgetta’s infidelity is softened by genuine affection for her husband and a kind of visionary yearning, beautifully expressed in her duet with her lover, Luigi (Leonardo Caimi), “E ben altro il mio sogno”, one of Puccini’s subtlest pieces of writing.

Greek soprano Alexia Vougaridou caught this conflicted character to perfection: the no longer quite so young but still desirable woman reduced to drudgery on a cramped boat. And amazingly she then rebooted as Suor Angelica – the nun Sister Angelica – in the second opera and delivered her final scena, a kind of Liebestod in which she is miraculously reunited in death with the little son she hasn’t seen since the day he was born, with a spectacular commitment and bravura that brought the house down. Perhaps it helps that both characters are lamenting dead babies.

Suor Angelica divides opinion; it has something of the mawkishness of Madam Butterfly without its musical distinction. But, in playing down the cypress-and-roses aspect of the convent cloister, setting it instead in what looks more like a disused Victorian workhouse, McVicar hardens the image just enough to keep it bearable. And the company aspect of this revival, with a gallery of sharp vignettes and lovely offstage chorus work, avoids too much drag in the action. Particularly striking is Tichina Vaughn’s horrible, unforgiving Princess, Angelica’s old aunt, whose announcement of the child’s death triggers the redemption that she would neither countenance nor comprehend. Sioned Gwen Davies’s Abbess neatly gets elements of both mentalities, the loving and the stern. (Pictured above: Tichina Vaughn as The Princess, Alexia Vougaridou as Sister Angelica)

Alexia Vougaridou as Giorgetta, Alison Kettlewell as La FrugolaIn Il Tabarro, similarly, there is a series of fine cameos – Puccini makes life hard in all three operas by the prodigality of his castings. But this has always been one of WNO’s strengths, with its chorus of potential soloists. Of the other principals, Caimi plays Luigi fairly straight as an Italian tenor reimagined as a Paris stevedore, while Roland Wood mutters and grumbles as Michele, victim of jealousy towards an unknown rival. Alison Kettlewell lightens the tone in La Frugola’s song about her cat, accompanied by some Straussian miaows in Puccini’s orchestra. It’s all rather touching and mildly depressing; but that’s the reality, and this, after all, is verismo. (Pictured above: Alexia Vougaridou as Giorgetta, Alison Kettlewell as La Frugola|)

Gianni Schicchi, the best-known of the three pieces, has invariably been the light relief whatever its pairings (Covent Garden once teamed it with Schoenberg’s Erwartung), and McVicar duly goes for its farcical aspects, making hay with the sheer rapacity of poor dead Buoso’s relations, the gullibility of the doctor and lawyer, even turning the quasi-idealistic lover, Rinuccio, into a shy, bespectacled teenager, whose vision of Florence is as affected as everyone else’s mourning for Buoso. Where Il Tabarro lacks villainy, Gianni Schicchi has hardly anything but, the exception (perhaps) being Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta (Haegee Lee), who nevertheless doesn’t shrink to use her Irresistible aria, charmingly but with a certain air of insincerity, to get her way with her “babbino caro” – her dear Daddy.

All this is brilliantly stage-managed, whatever one may think of apostrophes to Florence, Giotto and the Medici, and amputation as a penalty for will impersonation, in 1960s Italy. Buoso’s “mansion” is more of a huge first-floor bedsitter, chaotic even before the cousins start ransacking it for his lost will. Schicchi himself is a navvy in jeans and a leather jerkin. But the staging has such wit and pace that incongruity vanishes in the face of entertainment. Roland Wood has more time than Vougaridou to adjust from morose barge-owner to opportunist scoundrel, and does it with verve and vocal character, not least in his squeaky Buoso imitation. Oleksiy Palchykov minces around as Rinuccio but sings his hymn to Florence in fine lyric style, as if Gianni Schicchi really were a symbol of the best in Tuscan culture. Some excellent singers are “wasted” in small parts: Rebecca Evans as Nella in a peroxide wig, Wojtek Gierlach as cousin Simone, ex-mayor of Fucecchio, among several others.

Carlo Rizzi conducts the whole bill without a tremor, from the beautiful, soft atmospheric opening of Il Tabarro to the ensemble complexities of the hunt for Schicchi’s will and the Donatis’ looting of the bedsit when they realise the game is up. In between there is playing of great delicacy in the convent. We should be celebrating this company as a national treasure, not putting it to death by a thousand cuts.

Not quite Puccini at his best, but still an absorbing, enjoyable and suitably exhausting evening

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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