“Puccini understood how to get the maximum voltage out of the human voice“ – Denis Forman, The Good Opera Guide
How to thrill an audience, make them weep and then fall about with laughter? Give them three shows in one, with strong plots, captivating characters and beautiful music. For his 1918 triptych (Il trittico), Puccini knew all the tricks and, over a century later, so do Scottish Opera.
Their new production of this trio of hour-long operas is a triumph. The singers, the orchestra and the sets make the most of each gripping story, powered by sweeping, spellbinding melodies.
The company is faithful to the composer’s wish to play all three pieces together. Though separate mini-sagas, the themes are common: betrayal, rejection, passion and, always, death. The whole evening is a great coup of stagecraft with three distinct settings (a Parisian canal, a 17th century convent and a sprawling bedroom in Florence). The scene shifting makes for long intervals, so I was glad of some M&S sandwiches.
The first piece is Il tabarro – the cloak. This garment keeps the barge-owner Michele warm and, later, his victim hidden. The production team (led by Glasgow-born and trained David McVicar) hold everything – colours, costumes, movement – tightly focussed on the tragic unfolding of this intensely emotional love triangle.
Second is Suor Angelica, which features more nuns and babies than Call the Midwife, but with no hope of a happy ending. Sister Angelica, curing others with her herbal brews, yearns to hear of her family. But the harsh, punitive Catholic culture drives her towards a fatal remedy. Puccini’s syrupy sounds pull out all the emotional stops and, again, Scottish Opera’s cast and crew stress exquisitely the pure intensity of the bereft nun’s plight. I was wiping away the tears, thinking of John Boyne’s book The Heart’s Invisible Furies and Peter Mullan’s film The Magdalene Sisters.
Finally comes the laugh-out-loud Gianni Schicchi. A bit like Harvey Keitel’s Mr Wolf in Pulp Fiction, Gianni is summoned to sort out a messy death. The still warm corpse is patriarch Buoso, who has only gone and left all his worldly goods to a monastery. The family (hilariously dressed in 1970s kitsch) are heartbroken by their loss: they might miss out on his money! Gianni and his daughter fix it, but, cuter than the crazed relatives desperate to claw back their inheritance, they reap the rewards and the last of the umpteen laughs.
As well as his glorious melodies, Puccini shows his gift for comedy and this version makes the most of the fast, frenzied farce.
The orchestra, conducted by Stuart Stratford, plays superbly, supporting breathtaking performances from Sunyoung Seo (the lead in both Il tabarro and Suor Angelica) and Roland Wood as the cuckolded barge-owner, then the title role in Gianni Schicchi.
Glasgow’s Theatre Royal was packed and it may be impossible to get tickets for the few performances left in the current run (Saturday 18 March, Glasgow; Wednesday 22 and Saturday 25 March, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh). But this is a major success for Scottish Opera and when they revive it in future, rush to get a ticket.