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In opera, as in theater, the one-act is a relatively minor form. The
larger-than-life emotions of opera generally need a full length work to build plot and
motivation that provide the foundation for the dramatically full-blown experience that
makes opera so special. The one-act opera is to a full length work as a short story is to
a novel. It can capture a moment, a mood, a feeling, and it can be artistically exquisite,
but it cannot provide the more profound satisfactions of the full length work.
Puccini's Il Trittico is a rather catch-as-catch-can collection of three one-acts that have virtually no direct connection to one another. It's as if Puccini had a handful of unused ideas that he wanted to express, ideas suitable to a short form that he simply threw together, like a patchwork of scraps. One can't help but to wonder if three one-acts on a program might prove to be a deeply satisfying evening if the works were thematically related and commented upon one another so that the whole would be more than the sum of its parts. But that is not the situation at hand.
Despite the limitations of the form, Il Trittico is still Puccini and has moments of his gloriously soaring melody, emotional verity, and melodramatic theatricality that make it worth the occasional production.
Il Tabarro is pure melodramatic verismo: passion, infidelity, and jealousy are expressed and then resolved through an act of murder. Suor Angelica is a rather saccharine piece about a noblewoman who was banished to a convent after having an illegitimate child; when she learns of his death she kills herself in hope of joining him in Heaven. Her suicide should condemn her to Hell, but she is, nonetheless redeemed.
Perhaps the best realized is the third opera, Gianni Schicchi, a buffa work that develops further than most one acts--it has a developed plot line with an exposition, a conflict, and a delightful ironic resolution. A wealthy man is dying and his greedy relatives are distraught to learn they are not provided for in his will. They hire a crafty lawyer (is that a redundancy?), Schicchi, to remedy the situation; he rewards their snobbery and greed with a doublecross which also allows the love of his daughter, Lauretta, for the nephew of the deceased, Rinuccio, to find a happy resolution.
New York City Opera has revived the trilogy in a new production with mixed results, but is surely to be commended for providing the relatively rare opportunity to hear these works in the opera house. Visually, each of the three is produced without any attempt to bridge them, an appropriate decision in view of their unconnectedness.
Il Tabarro is given a simple, almost abstracted production, in which the floor of the stage becomes the deck of the barge on which the principals live. It is a serviceable, if uninspired and uninspiring, setting that simply provides a neutral background for the steamy goings on. And steamy it was, with both acting and singing of convincing intensity. Mark Delavan's powerful baritone thrills here with a quality of rich plangency; his strong stage presence reinforces his dramatic effectiveness. Soprano Fabiana Bravo effectively conveyed the conflict of her love for her husband with her passion for Luigi (Carl Tanner). Her dramatic soprano instrument projects with both strength and clarity. Tanner produces a ringing, well-articulated line. Together the three principals successfully achieved a fully realized Il Tabarro.
Suor Angelica, a problematic work to begin with, here is weighted down with an ill-advised placing of the action in a children's hospital, instead of the called-for convent. The irony added by that idea is a minor conceit; the clinical looking, brightly lit setting works against the required mood of sequestered faith and abject penitence. And, while Maria Kanyova's strong soprano in the lead did all it was supposed to do musically, her delivery was without dramatic inflection and without passion. It failed to generate sympathy for Angelica's plight, which is the best that can be hoped for from this opera.
Set designer Allen Moyer, along with costume designer Bruno Schwengl, get their best chance to shine with Giannni Schicchi. Placed in the 1950's, a modern hospital room setting is contained within walls of an op-art geometric pattern. The costuming, also in black and white, draws cleverly on 1950's styles, providing a sense of flair, as well as a sense of the bourgeois chic and pretension of the greedy family. When the libretto speaks to the joys of Florence, a rear wall slides open, becoming a huge window with a panoramic view of the city.
Delavan easily negotiates the change in mood from his tortured Michele in Il Tabarro to the rascally comedy of Schicchi. The ensemble cast around him are nicely individualized under the inventive direction of James Robinson. Only the Lauretta of Patrizia Zanardi disappoints; she's a charming ingenue with a pretty voice, but utterly lacking in power and projection. One of the most melodic of Puccini arias, "O mio babbino caro," seemed to sink into the orchestra pit, never fully reaching out into the auditorium.
New York City Opera, September 25, 2002 - Arthur Lazere