Redemption for the Met: ‘La Fanciulla del West’ Returns With a Bang!

Minnie (Eva-Maria Westbroek) makes a slam-bang entrance in Act I of “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Movie Music for the Times

The Metropolitan Opera transmitted Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West over the airwaves via a Live in HD telecast on October 27, 2018, and the regular Saturday radio broadcast (taped) on December 22. Based on Broadway playwright, impresario, and self-promoting producer David Belasco’s most successful stage play The Girl of the Golden West, La Fanciulla del West contains some of the composer’s most bizarre and perplexing music and situations, as well as some of the most exhilarating moments in the theater.

According to Mosco Carner, in his critical study of Puccini, the renowned musician from Lucca had grown tired of the “world of frail heroines and fragile things,” of tragic young women who manage to die of one thing or another at the end of his works. He wanted something bold, new, and dramatic that would help to conquer the “lucrative American market.” Egged on by his close friend and Muse, the Englishwoman Sybil Seligman, Puccini looked to Belasco for inspiration. As he had done with La Bohème by sullying his hands with the sadism of Sardou’s La Tosca, Puccini turned away from Madama Butterfly’s Japanese setting (another Belasco influence) to feast his Tuscan eyes on the American West.

The Girl, as the composer referred to his seventh stage work, takes place in the mountain camps of Northern California during the brash Gold Rush days, i.e., of “miners, forty-niners.” The opera closely follows the play in structure and contrivance. Belasco helped to direct the piece for its Metropolitan Opera premiere on December 10, 1910. There’s an amusing caricature by tenor Enrico Caruso of the first staging rehearsal (dated November 1910) where he captures Belasco in his trademark black frock coat and priestly white collar (he was mocked as the “Bishop of Broadway”), along with the beetle-browed Toscanini (at center, with arms raised), and a portly Puccini (at far right).

Caricature by Enrico Caruso of “La Fanciulla del West” stage rehearsals, dated November 1910 (Alamy Stock Photo)

As clever as this was, the drawing pretty much summed up the whole affair, in that La Fanciulla was a spectacular success on its opening night. Thereafter, enthusiasm cooled for the piece as the world engaged in all-out war. Who cared about prospectors panning for gold when more important issues were at stake (survival, for one)? Nostalgia for the past was replaced by concerns for the present and the future.

Interestingly, Puccini may have foreseen what would eventually draw listeners back to The Girl: a longing for home and hearth, for Mom’s apple pie, and for the warmth and compassion of a (so-called) “good woman” and a correspondingly “good man.” These themes, and other related ideas — especially the notion of redemption for one’s transgressions (and Puccini had many that needed redeeming) — recur throughout Fanciulla. According to Minnie, the opera’s gun-toting female protagonist, “There’s not a sinner in the world for whom a path to redemption is not open.”

Most notable of all was the musical language Puccini employed to carry out the subtleties of this newly worked-out theme. He had first experimented with the whole-tone scale in La Bohème (for example, the interlude that begins Act III), and afterwards in Madama Butterfly where the pentatonic (or “five-note”) scale was introduced, in addition to several Japanese folk themes. Both scales took center stage in Fanciulla, and right from the opening bars. One could write entire treatises on that musical motif alone! I prefer to let more learned authorities lead the way on that one.

Poster art for “La Fanciulla del West” by Giovanni Palanti, ca. 1910

For me, I love to wax poetic on the subject of Puccini’s instinctive ability to delineate story, plot, and character through his novel use of the orchestra; how he was able to draw such vibrant portraits and pertinent commentary on the action through seemingly effortless means — what in the nascent film industry would become known as “Mickey-Mousing.” Throughout the years, I’ve learned that Puccini not only had an all-consuming passion for the theater, but also a sense of music’s cinematic potential. This is not a new theory, but purely an observation, on my part, that lends credence to the thought that Puccini was cognizant of the simultaneous growth of silent cinema around the time he wrote his most famous works. Did he pay much attention to silent movies? We’re not at all sure.

Still, I happen to take issue with William Berger’s declaration, published in Puccini without Excuses (Vintage Books, 2005), that the composer “never developed, or pretended to develop, an interest in cinema” — this despite the fact that Pietro Mascagni and Ildebrando Pizzetti, along with other contemporary composers, wrote dozens of scores for early silent features. Even that bellicose poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio got “paid a fortune merely writing the screen titles in the epic of ancient Rome, Cabiria, in 1914” (p. 68).

All this is fine, as far as it goes — and, to quote an Old Italian adage, Si non è vero, è ben trovato (“If it isn’t true, it’s well founded”). But the point remains that in our modern era Puccini’s scores have been serving as movie soundtracks for decades on end. Despite the fact he never wrote music directly for the movies, his scores have a way of indirectly “mimicking” a film’s soundtrack, especially in his operas’ onstage and offstage occurrences.

Listen, for example, to the opening section of Tosca, how the music follows along with the escaped prisoner Angelotti in his frantic search for the key to his family chapel: “A piè della Madonna mi scrisse mia sorella” – “At the foot of the Madonna so wrote my sister.” That’s where Angelotti finds his precious key, but not before the music leads the character to rummage through the church for several nail-biting minutes. Moments later, the irascible Sacristan saunters in. What a delightful, bouncy little tune he has! You can almost picture in your mind the fellow bumbling and grumbling about his business.

Moving on to La Fanciulla, the underscoring is masterfully interwoven into the dialogue in order to capture a “Wild West” ambience — that is, something out of The Great Train Robbery from 1903. To illustrate this point, maestro Stephen Mercurio, in the December 2010 issue of OPERA NEWS (via his article “How the West Was Won”), describes the thirty-five bar prelude as making “a short, loud curtain-raiser, with a cinematic sound that would ultimately serve as a model and inspiration for film composers” (p. 36).

Mercurio went on to expand upon his assertion: “As a conductor, I’m always amazed by the extent to which [Puccini] would challenge the audience’s ear, rendering the offstage action a musical equal to the onstage action … One unique example: immediately after the curtain goes up, a silent-movie-like scene is played out onstage, as Nick the bartender, Jack Rance the sheriff and Larkens, the despondent miner on the verge of a nervous breakdown, appear to reflect their individual psychological states. The only voices heard are the boys’ shouts from a distance, signaling the end of the miners’ workday, and the foreshadowing of Jake Wallace’s melancholy minstrel song, sung by a baritone offstage.

“All of this happens before even one note is sung onstage. It was an audacious move for Puccini to open this opera in such a manner, forcing the audience, and the orchestral players as well, to expand their ears beyond the pit … The entire offstage drama, almost a parallel opera, representing the life of the posse, is played out by Puccini in each of the three acts. They supply a continuous action heard offstage.”

Step up to the bar: Opening scene of “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Met Opera)

In the concluding section, Mercurio summarizes his findings as to Puccini’s methodology for expressing the inherent theatricality of his works: “I am constantly reminded of how his highly developed dramatic sensibilities would anticipate, on an orchestral level, what was to become a common technique for the best film composers — underscoring to heighten the audience’s anxiety level for dramatic effect…

“From the downbeat and the cinematically evocative bars of the prelude to the final fading off into the sunset, La Fanciulla del West was conceived to capture the imagination of American audiences. By bringing Belasco’s highly successful play to the opera stage, Fanciulla entered into what Puccini believed to be the American psyche — bigger than life, dramatic, colorful and ultimately life-affirming. With La Fanciulla del West, Puccini gave us the ‘new world,’ symbolizing optimism, hope and freedom for all — and, in essence, what may well be considered the first great American opera” (p. 39).

La Fanciulla’s Minnie as Calamity Jane? How about Annie Oakley? Hmm…. I don’t know about “the first great American opera” label, but I do know this: it’s definitely, as author Christopher Frayling termed it in Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, “the first Italian ‘Western.’ ” Pass the spaghetti sauce, please!

‘Go West, Young Man (And Woman)’

The only Fanciulla production I am aware of that took the silent-film aesthetic fully to heart, and presented Puccini’s “horse” opera in a debatable facsimile of that form, is German stage director Christof Loy’s 2012 production for the Royal Swedish Opera House. Designed by Herbert Murauer (the single-unit set is mostly a corrugated “wall”) and conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi, the cast features Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Minnie (our titular “Girl”), Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Dick Johnson (aka the bandit Ramerrez), Swedish baritone John Lundgren as Sheriff Jack Rance, and bass Michael Schmidberger as Wells Fargo agent Ashby.

Two of the more striking visual components of this version (available to viewers on a Unitel Classica DVD/Blu-ray Disc) are the introductory pre-curtain feature, shown on a screen before the curtain proper; and the entrance of the “blind” minstrel Jake Wallace (sung by baritone John Erik Eleby).

Cover of Unitel-Classica’s release of “La Fanciulla del West” – Production by Christof Loy, 2012, Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm

The pre-curtain feature, as outlined in the accompanying booklet (with notes by Ruprecht Langer), is in “the style of a 1950s black-and-white Western. Minnie rides through a Wild West landscape. [No sooner] has she jumped off her horse [when] she begins running towards the audience and, at the last moment, literally [bursts] out of the screen, revolvers drawn — eliciting her first applause without having sung a single note.” A “yippee-ki-yay” flourish if there ever was one! But what do you do for an encore? It’s hard to top those first few minutes, and indeed nothing else in the staging quite approaches that opening thrill ride.

Another instant, one that probably looked better on paper than in actual practice, was the brief interlude with Jake Wallace, here made up to look like the rumpled Little Tramp from The Gold Rush (written, directed, and produced by Charlie Chaplin himself in 1925, fifteen years after La Fanciulla’s debut). Forgetting the Gold Rush analogy for the moment, singer John Erik Eleby’s pained expression betrayed noticeable discomfort. The character basically stands around not knowing what to do. This sequence fell flatter than Chaplin’s worn shoes.

Continuing with Langer’s notes, “Film elements pervade the entire opera. In each of the three acts, screens several [meters] high show cleverly selected close-ups of the actors’ big moments in Hollywood-style projected images.” Too, this element proved more distracting than enlightening: it was more a question of where audience members needed to focus their gaze, either on the singers themselves or their larger-than-life screen counterparts. It generated more frustration than illumination, a good idea improperly thought out, and illustrative of what people meant when they refer to bad Regietheater.

As for the casting, the popular Ms. Stemme, who has triumphed in such roles as Strauss’ Elektra, Wagner’s Brünnhilde, and Puccini’s Turandot, while tough as nails as the barkeep Minnie, lacked vulnerability. She seemed tougher than boot leather, when compared to the pudgy out-of-sorts Antonenko. Vocally, Antonenko reminded me of the late Hungarian tenor Sándor Kónya, a memorable Lohengrin at the Met, and an affable Dick Johnson in the 1970 radio broadcast of Fanciulla. Aleksandrs, too, lacked a certain suavity and charm, both necessary components if we are to believe this farfetched couple’s relationship.

CD cover of Renata Tebaldi as Minnie in “La Fanciulla del West”

By the way, that now-legendary 1970 radio broadcast boasted one of a handful of Met Opera appearances by the late Renata Tebaldi as Minnie. I recorded that performance on open-reel tape and remember it fondly, mostly for Tebaldi’s feminine guile and sweetness, despite blustery and harshly sung, off-pitch high notes. The role unfortunately occurred late in her career when anything above the staff became painful to listen to. Her mustache-twirling antagonist, sung by the underrated Anselmo Colzani (subbing for an indisposed Cornell MacNeil), snarled and rasped to our delight.

Their second act duet, almost a re-creation of the Tosca-Scarpia encounter, but with the villain left standing at the end, raised the Met rafters to new heights with Tebaldi’s delivery of that classic rip-roaring line, “Tre assi e un paio!” (“Three aces and a pair”), in their high-stakes poker game. The audience was still cheering many minutes after the curtain had fallen. Wow, talk about goose bumps!

One live production I rather enjoyed, although it was staged on a proportionately smaller scale than the Met’s, was from 1977 at the New York City Opera, courtesy of director Frank Corsaro. Even with a reduced orchestra, conductor Sergiu Comissiona coaxed some sonorous nuances from a cast headed by Maralin Niska (over-parted but acceptable) as Minnie, Ermanno Mauro (very Del Monaco-esque, as was his wont) as Johnson, and Charles Long (substituted in Acts II and III by the full-throated Vern Shinall) as Rance.

How the Met Was Won

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, the “Girl of the Golden West” (Photo: Met Opera)

No such goose bumps proliferated in the Saturday matinee re-broadcast of Fanciulla, but the full cast does merit attention: Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Johnson/Ramerrez, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Rance, bass Oren Gradus as Jake Wallace, and tenors Scott Scully and Carlo Bosi as Joe and Nick, respectively; with bass Richard Bernstein as Bello, tenor Alok Kumar as Harry, bass-baritone Joseph Barron as Happy, bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha as Sid, baritone Michael Todd Simpson as Sonora, tenor Eduardo Valdes as Trin, baritone Adrian Timpau as Larkens, bass Matthew Rose as Ashby, tenor Ian Koziara as the Post Rider, baritone Kidon Choi as José Castro, mezzo MaryAnn McCormick as Wowkle, and bass Philip Cokorinos as Billy Jackrabbit. Marco Armiliato (whose brother, tenor Fabio Armiliato, has also appeared at the Met and elsewhere) presided over the orchestra and, if truth be told, conducted the work from memory. Praise be, Toscanini lives!

The production, a grandiose affair, owes much to the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and is credited to Giancarlo Del Monaco, the famed tenor’s son, with period sets and costumes (atmospheric but hardly of the times, so I’ve read) by Michael Scott, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and revival stage direction by Gregory Keller. The men’s chorus, an important ingredient in this piece, was prepared by Chorus Master Donald Palumbo.

The story, in a nutshell, concerns the literal taming of the West — in this instance, involving three of the opera’s characters: Minnie, Johnson/Ramerrez, and Rance. The fourth character, the miners and would-be gold prospectors, functions as a Greek chorus. Their redemption, along with those of the main figures above, takes up the opera’s running time.

Minnie is a free spirit, but a faintly religious one. She’s not the Bible-thumping, pistol-packing Mama depicted in tiresomely lazy reporting by most critics and reviewers. William Berger has stressed that fact: she’s a rugged individualist, the lone female out to tame those unruly frontiersmen (code word for the wilderness). She wants to meet a man who can tame her as well, but strictly on her terms. Johnson, whose real name is Ramerrez (a Mexican bandit by inheritance), happens to be that man — or so he thinks. His task is to convince Minnie of that, only she’s not so easily convinced. Then, there’s Sheriff Rance. He’s not such a bad sort, but more of a disgruntled loner. True, he’s the law in these parts, and every two-bit mining town needs a lawman. He has a wife, but longs to run away with Minnie. Who wouldn’t? It’s lonely in them thar California hills — and Minnie’s quite the catch!

Filling her boots is Eva-Maria Westbroek, who has teamed with Kaufmann on prior occasions as Sieglinde to his Siegmund in Die Walküre, as part of the Met’s current Ring-cycle production. She’s also appeared in the Francesca da Rimini revival a few seasons back, Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and as Katerina Izmailova in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Not a lirica-spinta by any stretch of the imagination, Westbroek met the challenges and obstacles of Minnie’s part head-on. If she appeared to be steam-rolling over some of the role’s treacherous tessitura (and let’s face it, not for nothing is Minnie known as the Italian Brünnhilde), she managed to create a sympathetic portrayal nonetheless. She did manage to make it through her second-act poker match (with squalls intact), but ran afoul of the orchestra which blasted away to mesmerizing effect.

A “Meet Cute”: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie and Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Wayward high notes aside, Westbroek made for a perfect match-up with her frequent stage partner Herr Kaufmann, returning to the Met after an absence of four seasons. Man, was he missed! But after hearing him as Dick Johnson, made famous by the great Caruso, as well as other artists from the past (Del Monaco, Corelli, Tucker, Domingo, and the like), I wished he’d cut down on the crooning.

Kaufmann’s voice has turned darker with the intervening years, and was not as penetrating or as viscerally enticing as when we last heard him, both as Wagner’s Parsifal and as a peerless Werther in the Massenet opus. His soft-singing was soothing, though, especially in the long duet with Minnie that closes Act I. He was forthright and heroic where he needed to be in Act II, and his “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act III, the only number in the opera that can be classified as an “aria” (or, as the late Met spokesperson Francis Robinson used to pronounce it, “aah-ria”), was meltingly enunciated, if a might too careful and mannered: he sounds more and more like Jon Vickers every time I hear him. Fans of the tenor were in good voice (and in ample supply) at curtain time.

Making his role debut as the bad-ass sheriff, Željko Lučić allowed his strongly sinuous and muscular baritone to ring out resoundingly. Here was a lawman to be reckoned with! His experience with that other Puccini policeman, Scarpia, showed in Lučić’s onstage carriage and vigorous vocal allure. Still, Rance is not the main focus of the plot, only an incidental (and diversionary) one at that. He’s left standing apart from the others at the close, which is not what Puccini or Belasco had intended.

Last Man Standing: Željko Lučić as Jack Rance in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Overall, there was no faulting Lučić’s confident grounding of his role in the key Act II match-up with Minnie. There was excitement a-plenty here, even if it failed to erase memories of the Tebaldi-Colzani encounter, or any of the recorded ones featuring Tebaldi with MacNeil (on Decca/London), Carol Neblett with Sherrill Milnes (DG), or the available YouTube excerpts, starring the rarely heard Gigliola Frazzoni, with Corelli and Gobbi. American lyric soprano Dorothy Kirsten was a natural for the part of Minnie, especially when she was paired up with Brooklyn-born Richard Tucker (wearing Caruso’s jacket from the original Belasco production!).

A one-of-a-kind dream cast with verismo specialist Magda Olivero, along with the giant-voiced Gian Giacomo Guelfi (a personal friend of Corelli’s), is another YouTube find and highly recommended. Even more impressive is the young Italian tenor in the part of Johnson: Daniele Barioni. Proving he was a lot more than a dime-store Del Monaco, Barioni delivers the goods in spades with an outstanding interpretation, both vocally and histrionically, of the bandit-turned-lover. Barioni’s only available commercial recording is the first stereo rendition of Puccini’s La Rondine for RCA Victor, with Anna Moffo, Piero De Palma, Graziella Sciutti, and Mario Sereni, conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

Redemption finally comes to our heroine and her bandit boyfriend. Minnie saves Johnson from the hangman’s noose and convinces the miners to set him free — with Minnie as his redeemer. Together, they leave the mining town behind to go off into the sunset, while the men commiserate over their loss with a repeat of Jake Wallace’s wistful ballad, “Che faranno i vecchi miei, là, lontano?” (“What will the old folks do, so far away?”). Berger insists it’s an old Zuni Indian tune, while Carner maintains its close relationship to Stephen Foster’s “The Old Dog Tray.” (Note to readers: After listening to an excerpt of “Old Dog Tray” online, I am convinced that Puccini’s reworking is not even close to Foster’s theme, but an original creation.)

The community is transformed, now and forever, by the miners’ solidarity and their association with The Girl. The lovers’ fading voices in the distance are all that’s left of their memories: “Addio, mia California! Addio!” The opera began with the word “Hello!” and ends, deliberately and nostalgically, with “Goodbye!” “But whatever bright future they may have in front of them,” Berger’s thoughts tell us, “there is a unique sadness to the finale of Fanciulla, despite the lack of a ‘body count’ and the theoretically happy ending.”

You have my permission to wipe away the tears with Puccini’s score in hand.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Cloak, a Convent, and a Conman: Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ Celebrates 100 Years at the Met

Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ (“The Triptych”), his trio of one-act operas, at the Met Opera revival, Dec 2018: ‘Il Tabarro,’ ‘Suor Angelica,’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’

Three for the Price of One

Puccini’s Il Trittico (or “The Triptych”), a dark, somber, and moody work for two-thirds of its running time, is brightened in the final third by Gianni Schicchi, the composer’s only opera in the buffa vein. Given in three acts (each of the mini-pieces runs to about an hour in length), Il Trittico, Puccini’s most sustained and atmospheric theatrical creation, celebrated its one hundredth birthday at the Metropolitan Opera House this past December 8, 2018, in a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast. The production was by Jack O’Brien, with sets designed by Douglas W. Schmidt, and costumes by Jess Goldstein.

A later transmission, on December 22, showcased the same composer’s La Fanciulla del West, the only bona fide Italian spaghetti Western in the entire standard repertoire. Based on American impresario David Belasco’s turn-of-the-century stage play The Girl of the Golden West, we’ll soon be reviewing Giancarlo Del Monaco’s production of this “horse” opera in a future post.

So which came first, The Girl or the triptych? In actuality, the 1910 gala premiere of Fanciulla brought the world famous composer, on hand for the opening night performance, heavier than usual press coverage (Puccini’s first visit to America came in 1907 for the New York premieres of Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut). A stellar cast, headed by Emmy Destin, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato, along with some spectacular production values, wowed the Met’s diamond-horseshoe set.

Conducted by the renowned Tuscan maestro Arturo Toscanini, La Fanciulla, Puccini’s seventh effort for the stage, was the most lavish operatic presentation of its day. Oddly enough, The Girl’s beauty began to fade just as the world sank ever deeper into international conflict. On the other hand, the reputation of Il Trittico, which did not bring Puccini back to the Big Apple (the First World War had only recently ended in November 1918, which meant that floating mines were still a major hazard for trans-Atlantic crossings), suffered as a result.

Despite the presence of several outstanding artists, among them Claudia Muzio, Luigi Montesanto, and Giulio Crimi in Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”), Geraldine Farrar in Suor Angelica, and Giuseppe De Luca, Crimi, and Florence Easton in Gianni Schicchi, the Trittico was far from an immediate hit. Praise for Gianni Schicchi was universal, of course, but critics puzzled over the other two works, most misunderstanding their content and character. The association with Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Schicchi is briefly mentioned, and the notion that individuals must journey through phases of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise for their redemption, are essential to their interpretation. In reference to Il Tabarro, Toscanini himself declared: “I don’t like it at all,” a perceptive observation on his part — in fact, his only complete recording of a Puccini opera would be the composer’s youthful La Bohème with Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce in the leads.

The original cast of ‘Il Trittico’ at its Met Opera premiere in Dec 1918

The sordidness of that opening piece or the sentimental quality of the second one, Suor Angelica, may have had something to do with Toscanini’s harsh judgment. Certainly the famed musician could have fallen hard for item number three, Gianni Schicchi — a work of comedic genius in the manner of Verdi’s Falstaff. Nothing doing! It was left to opera companies, the changing nature of opera as a whole, and the passage of time to render a more favorable outcome for Puccini’s trio of compact masterworks.

Nevertheless, despite past misgivings I was thrilled to be hearing these three operas again, after their being absent from the Met repertoire for much too long a time. In my view, they are the composer’s most mature and perceptive creations.

Attend the Tale of Il Tabarro

Luigi (Marcelo Alvarez) reminisces with Giorgetta (Amber Wagner) about their youth in the Parisian suburb of Belleville, in ‘Il Tabarro’

The opening piece, Il Tabarro, based on a one-act French play La Houppelande by Didier Gold, is a forerunner to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: it is pure Grand Guignol, and a stark one at that. But don’t be fooled by the comparison! No one gets their throat cut or baked into meat pies. The brutality in Tabarro is swift and resolute in the lead character Michele’s hands and fully warranted, one might add, given his young wife Giorgetta’s secret affair with the hunky Luigi. A second murder by a minor character, the drunkard Tinca, one that takes place offstage in the play, was discarded by the composer for reasons of dramatic unity and coherence. That’s one too many killings for a single act.

The curtain rises in silence. It’s only then that we hear the prelude to Il Tabarro, a masterful depiction of the River Seine flowing languorously through the byways of Paris, here (thanks to an excellent libretto by Giuseppe Adami) given prominence as a major character. The water’s ebb and flow goes in only one direction, stressing the inevitability of fate, and a life of labor and pain. The protagonists get what they can out of this harshness, and Puccini’s music reflects that warped, oppressive environment. You can taste the expressionistic flavor in nearly every bar.

After his whole-tone experiment with La Fanciulla, in Il Tabarro the composer went all-out by not only channeling Debussy, but more prominently the music of the Russian school (Mussorgsky and the young Stravinsky). It’s remarkable how far Puccini had progressed from the banality of La Rondine (1917), that pseudo-Viennese operetta and Traviata wannabe that prefaced Il Trittico, to this.

You could say, too, that the problems of little people in Trittico don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up world of the opera. However, the issues that working stiffs had to deal with in Berg’s Wozzeck, which had its world premiere only a few short years after Il Trittico bowed, were fully formed and addressed in Tabarro, and by the briefest of means. Compositionally speaking, there are numerous examples of characters commenting on their situation, sometimes spoken in hushed tones, other times in rising and falling cadences, or just plain monotones.

One of them, the rag picker La Frugola, has an odd little number early on where she shows off what her rummaging through the Paris trash heaps has turned up. It’s basically a stream of consciousness narrative. With metronomic echoes of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, along with similar vignettes scattered throughout the entirety of the triptych, these moments pay considerable reverence to the downtrodden (specifically, those found in Hugo’s Les Misérables, or the works of Émile Zola), in a type of musical shorthand only a composer of Puccini’s innate dramatic sensibility could assemble.

Giorgetta (Amber Wagner, left) tries to follow La Frugola’s (MaryAnn McCormick) thoughts in ‘Il Tabarro’

This musical shorthand went hand-in-hand with the prevailingly bleak atmosphere, one of inescapable despair and drudgery; of common folk grasping at fleeting moments of gratification, be they sexual (i.e., Giorgetta’s wild fling with Luigi) or other forms (Tinca’s alcoholism, La Frugola’s obsessive compulsiveness). Events occur at such a rapid pace that audiences barely have time to catch their collective breath, so well has Puccini understood and developed the art of the short phrase. The handling of key dramatic situations, and the spaces between notes, are flawlessly interpreted all through the opera’s single act, and, indeed, throughout its sister works, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Despite the added casting burdens placed on opera houses due to the multiple roles involved (several of which can be doubled or even tripled, I might add), the rewards are great for artists rightly in tune with their requirements.

On that note, the Met’s matinee cast for Tabarro was ready and able to tackle this assignment. It included the amply endowed soprano of Amber Wagner as Giorgetta, tenor Marcelo Álvarez as Luigi, mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick (in place of the formerly announced Stephanie Blythe) as La Frugola, baritone George Gagnidze as Michele, basso Maurizio Muraro as Talpa, and tenor Tony Stevenson as Tinca. The Parisian-born Bertrand de Billy (an excellent choice) presided over the worthy Met Opera Orchestra. As a matter of fact, Monsieur De Billy was a most indulgent and reliable orchestra leader. His background in French and Italian opera gave him a tremendous advantage in presenting these three works in the best light, especially Tabarro where the setting is not-so-Gay Paree.

Michele the barge owner (George Gagnidze) wonders who his wife’s lover is in the finale to ‘Il Tabarro’

To start things off, Marcelo Álvarez struggled with the high, punishing tessitura of his role as the tortured stevedore Luigi. One of the finest recorded examples is that of Mario Del Monaco on Decca/London, in a virile vocal display that set the standard for subsequent performers. Of course, he had the luxury of having Renata Tebaldi by his side, and both were ably guided by Lamberto Gardelli’s knowledgeable baton beat. Still, Álvarez managed to mold something out of those high notes into an anguished human being. His arioso, “Hai ben ragione,” was flung full force into the audience with more abandon than I’ve heard from him of late. Praise be! He did a better job here than in the previous season’s Turandot broadcast: his Calàf was vocally bland and high-note shy throughout.

Amber Wagner’s weighty Giorgetta had the requisite thrust, including a superbly held, optional high C in her brief, agitated first duet with Álvarez. There’s no aria for the soprano, as such, in these intense exchanges. All the same, the two lovers offered a distinct contrast from the tensions wrought by their illicit assignation to that of the billing and cooing of Lauretta, Schicchi’s twenty-something daughter, and her similarly smitten betrothed, the resourceful Rinuccio.

George Gagnidze’s burly baritone — dark and tightly wound — and hulking menace made for a memorable Michele, the brooding barge owner and Luigi’s boss. The abundance of chromatics in his character’s music lent an air of tension to Michele’s dilemma. That Gagnidze simply could not rival the acting chops of a Tito Gobbi, or the burnished bronze of Ettore Bastianini’s 1953 radio broadcast, or that of Robert Merrill in the same Decca/London outing with Tebaldi and Del Monaco, need not diminish the Georgian baritone’s accomplishments.

Michele (George Gagnidze) attempts to rekindle his relationship with wife Giorgetta (Amber Wagner)

Foghorns, offstage chorus, sound effects, a bugle playing taps — all of them superbly employed as mood music — set up the magnificent closing monologue, “Nulla, silenzio” (“Nothing but silence”), the wary Michele’s fatalistic rumination on who the culprit fooling around with his wife might be. This is one of Puccini’s gloomiest and most forceful depictions. An earlier version of this aria, employing basically the same music, but longer and more lugubrious in nature, was rejected. It was a direct translation from the play, which would have been all wrong for the exigencies of the opera house. Fortunately, the composer insisted on a complete rewrite, which transformed the solo into the much-improved current version.

This was something that had also occurred with the first draft of Cavaradossi’s third-act aria in Tosca, originally a so-called “Farewell to Life and Art,” with text by Luigi Illica and subsequently replaced by the instantly memorable (and dramatically more pertinent) “E lucevan le stelle.”

Luckily for listeners, Gagnidze too was transformed into a singing actor, where word-play became paramount in this multi-layered sequence, and high-powered vocalism a prerequisite. The climax of the opera is one rip-snorting coup de théatre: Michele pounces on the unsuspecting Luigi and throttles him to death. Luigi dies with the words “L’amo” (“I love her”) on his lips, admitting his affair with Michele’s wife. Hiding his lifeless body underneath his long cloak (ergo, the ill-omened title of the piece), the barge owner reveals its grisly contents to his disbelieving, adulterous spouse, as the curtain falls. The original stage directions called for the baritone to shove Giorgetta’s face onto her dead lover’s ashen visage. (Shudders!!!)

The music throbs with expectancy at this violent episode; the basses and cellos pluck away in imitation of Luigi’s heartbeat, fluttering and fading to the last strains of the music. Giorgetta has her last moments of regret for betraying her husband in her choppy dialogue. She wants only to sit next to Michele, as in olden days — before their child had died — to cuddle in his cloak. Be careful what you wish for, girl! As Giorgetta dejectedly declared earlier in the drama, “How difficult it is to be happy.” That’s Hell for you!

A Lot of Nun-Sense

Kristine Opolais as Sister Angelica in Puccini’s ‘Suor Angelica’

For a change of pace, Suor Angelica is a delicate filigree of a work (Giovacchino Forzano provided the libretto, along with that of Gianni Schicchi; both were original ideas). Modal Gregorian chanting pre-dominates in the opening sequence. Note to readers: Puccini’s real-life sibling Iginia was first a nun and then a Mother Superior to a small convent in Italy. She “inspired,” shall we say, the title character as well as the ambient church melodies to be found in Suor Angelica (and in Tosca, too, if memory serves). Puccini learned much from tapping into his sister’s experiences of daily convent life, in addition to that of a priest he befriended, although the composer himself remained a lapsed Catholic to the end.

Consequently, the music in this act is entirely dissimilar from that of Il Tabarro, setting a tone of reverence and mysticism implicit in the story: those short phrases, little musical episodes endemic to verismo as a whole — something that Puccini continued to master over the course of the many decades he spent perfecting his art — govern this work, as well as Tabarro and Schicchi.

The tragedy of Sister Angelica, then, is that of a young noblewoman who bore a child out of wedlock, now cloistered away from society in a convent. She’s visited by her stern aunt, the family matriarch. Angelica asks for word of her son, only to be told in the harshest of terms that the child passed away after a brief illness. Devastated at the news, the little sister prepares a poisonous mixture from the herbs she has planted in the garden.

Drinking the fatal concoction, she realizes, to her horror, she has committed a mortal sin by attempting suicide. As she dies, Angelica (an appropriate name, to be sure) has a miraculous vision of her little boy with the Virgin Mary (in many productions, this celestial visitation is only hinted at, as it was in the Met’s previous Fabrizio Melano production). It’s a heartbreaking moment, guaranteed to leave audiences in tears. Only the most exceptional of artists — I’m thinking of the splendid Renata Scotto, and the equally-gifted Teresa Stratas and Gilda Cruz-Romo — can hold themselves together to pull this scene off. It takes a performer of the absolute first rank to survive such an emotional and vocal ordeal.

Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, a welcome and frequent figure at the Met, has appeared in many a Puccini part, i.e., Manon Lescaut, Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, and Magda in La Rondine. She sang the titular Angelica with poignancy and nuance. In her broadcast performance, Opolais opened the floodgates to summon the ghosts (and artistry) of verismo singers past: Muzio, Rosa Ponselle, Magda Olivero, Victoria De Los Angeles, Tebaldi, and the aforementioned Ms. Scotto — all of whom excelled in this repertoire.

Sister Angelica (Kristine Opolais) goes into a tailspin at the thought of her mortal sin

Since the opera is short, Ms. Opolais felt no compulsion to hold back for fear of running out of voice. Outside of some mild shrillness on top, she conveyed the character’s strength in adversity, maintaining her composure throughout her ordeal with the formidable Zia Principessa (“Princess Aunt”), sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. It’s here that Angelica matures from a young novice into an adult woman of substance. Others in the all-female cast included MaryAnn McCormick as the Monitor, Rosalie Sullivan as Sister Osmina, Maureen McKay as Sister Genovieffa, and Lindsay Ammann as the Abbess.

As mentioned above, the opera starts quietly, with hints of melodies to come. For roughly half its playing time we are presented with little character portraits from the large ensemble; each one voicing pointed commentaries or whispered asides around the routine of their convent, or the comings and goings of visitors, especially the wealthy aunt. Individual moments emerge, similar to but quite apart from those in Il Tabarro. We are not at the Seine, but in a religious community: there are no saints here either, only sinners. Leave it to Puccini who, along with Verdi, Boito, and others, had little use for organized religion EXCEPT as inspiration for their music.

The Musical Nature of Characters

Opolais’ middle voice had a beauty and vibrancy that signaled a close identification with this part. Short phrases both underscored and moved the action along in snippets — that is, until the music grew deadly serious upon the arrival of Angelica’s aunt, the nameless Zia Principessa. A character that Puccini etched from real life (quite possibly from his wife, Elvira), she is the arbiter of righteous indignation: proud, imperious, unyielding, and bereft of the most basic of human emotions toward her niece — that is, a monumental lack of compassion.

The implacable Zia Principessa (Stephanie Blythe, l.) confronts her niece, Sister Angelica (Kristine Opolais) at the convent

Ms. Blythe took the attitude of a performer trying to bring some level of humanity to a complicated part. In her intermission interview, Blythe expressed the view that to make the Aunt an all-out villain does the character an injustice. One has to imagine her as a flesh-and-blood individual, not a cardboard caricature, in order for audiences to relate to the tensions at hand. She’s a woman tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the family structure (and, let’s face it, the family fortune) in the face of a difficult situation. The Aunt is there to force Angelica to sign over her share of the family inheritance to her little sister, who is about to be married (a fascinating correlation to the goings-on in Gianni Schicchi).

While it’s hard for audiences to feel much sympathy for this creature, Blythe brought a heavy world-weariness to the part, along with rock-solid vocal technique and potent chest voice (never overused, mind you, but unleashed in the service to the plot). Puccini’s previous writing for mezzo or contralto is sparse (for example, the maid Suzuki in Butterfly has few opportunities to shine), but in Il Trittico there are three prominent roles that the same singer can take on and add luster to.

Puccini engaged in various modernesque techniques in his never-ending quest for how to tell his story by way of his music. An example of this is Sister Genovieffa’s brief arioso about her bleating lamb, vividly illustrated by thumps in the double basses and high strings. Again, a trick of the operatic trade that the composer marshaled forth to foster color and musical interest, from the chirping of the birds (flutes and woodwinds) to the tingling of the bells (both real and simulated).

Themes to be heard later in the opera, and more forcefully at that point, intrude on the nun’s chatter; the future telescoped portentously into the present — another way of foreshadowing events via purely musical terms. How carefully has the composer crafted his work: Puccini knew instinctively where to go with his score, as well as how to mold the text to fit this basic scheme. Too, there’s much to marvel in the novelty of his orchestration. His understanding of human nature, both here and in the two outer works, was built from the ground up in a lifetime spent in sorrow and disappointment. All his biographers have dwelled on the inescapable fact that Puccini’s own nature was one of perpetual melancholy.

Composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

The music turns solemn as we hear the Princess Aunt’s sinuous, stern lines (like a serpent ready to strike) along the lower wind instruments and strings (cellos, violas) and the ubiquitous ostinato passages in the basses (see La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly for comparison). She’s not a villain in the Scarpia mold; nor, for that matter, was Michele. Here, Blythe remained unemotional in her banter with Angelica, sporting a monochromatic delivery — the Princess Aunt on her high horse. Angelica’s more humane interactions contrast sharply with the Aunt’s self-righteous discourse. She speaks only of “justice” and “expiation” for her niece’s sin. Angelica, for her part, only wants to know about her child, repeating the words “Mio figlio, figlio mio” over and over again — another ostinato figure that is reiterated in the orchestra multiple times.

From this exchange, the haughty Aunt hits her anxious niece between the eyes with a thunderbolt: “It’s been two years since he passed. We did all we could.” Angelica lets out a hurtful wail that goes to the heart of the issue. She has nothing to live for, and therefore signs away her inheritance. The Aunt departs, accompanied by her winding theme in the lower strings (again, monotonous ad absurdum).

In Angelica’s gorgeous aria, “Senza mamma,” she voices her thoughts about her son, how he died without ever having known his mother’s love. When can she see him again? According to William Berger’s description of this episode, “The vocal line soars in G minor, but the muted orchestra recalls the Zia Principessa’s prayer in the previous scene” (Berger, Puccini without Excuses, p. 254). Indeed, her aria begins with the same three notes that accompanied the Aunt out the door, hinting that Angelica can never fully escape her relative’s long shadow. The intermezzo that follows is justly renowned as a passage of supreme repose.

Opolais returned to deliver the final scene in tightly controlled, but emotionally gripping fashion, the sorrow in her voice taking on Tebaldi’s velvet blanket in a most soothing and respectful mode. Needless to say, the soprano broke all hearts with her portrayal and was feted with a long ovation at the end. Puccini then concludes the opera in the same way that it began: with the nuns’ voices (representing the angels of heaven) heard from above, and the musical forces of two pianos, organ, glockenspiel, celesta, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, etc., in the background — a psychological if not a religious manifestation of a miracle, or “the poignancy of the human need for salvation,” as Berger put it.

It’s a more “restrained” approach to the subject than audiences might have anticipated, and will rekindle fond memories of Cio-Cio-San’s ritual suicide in Madama Butterfly, a coincidence this opera happens to share. The whole of the instrumentation dies out quietly with the subdued voices of the nuns, a hushed ending to accompany Angelica’s death and the wonder of salvation through grace. Purgatory was never so sublime.

‘Rich Relations May Give You Crust of Bread and Such’     

Placido Domingo (in hat and scarf) as Gianni Schicchi, surrounded by the Donati family

For Gianni Schicchi, Puccini treats audiences to a story of greedy relatives out to fleece the recently deceased Buoso Donati, a rich family member, out of his estate. They only need to find his last will and testament, that’s all. But where the heck did Buoso hide it? When they eventually locate the document (thanks to the young Rinuccio), they discover that he’s left his entire fortune to the church (gasp!). Undeterred by this unfortunate setback, they ponder how to rectify the situation.

[Author’s Note: In our estimation — and one that has been overlooked by many writers — the plot of Gianni Schicchi is a continuation of where the Zia Principessa left off with her niece Angelica. Puccini’s little in-joke, then, takes the story of the Aunt, now reshaped into that of Zita, the senior female member of the Donati clan (note that “Zita, i.e., zitta, or “shut up” in English, is close to the Italian word “Zia,” or “Aunt”), and follows it to its natural conclusion: i.e., what happens to the family fortune that Angelica signed away to her little sister, Anna Viola, so that she could marry her unnamed suitor. The raucous consequences, as put forth in the farcical routines of Schicchi, are funny and startling.]

Rinuccio suggests they summon Gianni Schicchi, a so-called “new monied man” whose cleverness and quick wit can help to recover their inheritance. Of course, Rinuccio has an ulterior motive behind this suggestion: he plans to wed Schicchi’s beautiful young daughter, Lauretta, with the inheritance serving as a tidy little wedding present. The relatives balk at the mere mention of this upstart. When Schicchi enters, he hits upon a plan to impersonate the dead Buoso and take his place in bed. His idea is to trick the Lawyer and his Notary into rewriting the will in the relatives’ favor (ahem, but taking the bulk of the riches for himself, lest he accuse the relatives of conspiring to cheat the state).

After the Lawyer and Notary have left, the relatives grab whatever articles aren’t nailed down and exit the house with Schicchi in hot pursuit, leaving the two lovers, Lauretta and Rinuccio, alone to blissfully make their wedding plans. True to form, Schicchi has the last word on the subject: “I trust you audience members have enjoyed this little plot. If what you’ve seen today pleases you, then join in unison and declare me ‘not guilty’.” Paradise was never so good!

In the finale to ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ the lovers Lauretta (Kristina Mkhitaryan) and Rinuccio (Atalla Ayan) fall into each others’ arms

There are some tricky time signatures and rhythm changes throughout this wonderfully paced score. Puccini’s penchant for stating a theme he has every intention of re-using down the road continues in the same vein as in the other two works of Il Trittico.

One obvious illustration is found in the ubiquitous aria, “O mio babbino caro,” which translates to “Oh my beloved father” (or “daddy,” a more accurate rendition), the thrice-familiar theme of which is first heard in Rinuccio’s “Firenze è com’un albero fiorito” (“Florence is like a flowering tree”). Soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan, as Lauretta in the Met broadcast, sang the aria brusquely, as it was originally intended, with no undue schmaltz attached or prolonged delays.

The piece comes and goes in a flash and should be delivered that way, not drawn out ad infinitum as heard in countless on-air ads and TV commercials, and especially its egregious misuse in the Merchant-Ivory production of A Room with a View (1986). Taken out of context, the air collapses of its own weight and winds up being a trial to the ears as well as a test of listeners’ patience. In its proper place, and as a spontaneous plea for a father’s aid, Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro” is a pleasant enough diversion (a “breather,” in modern day parlance) from the actions of those money-grubbing relations.

As Rinuccio, Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan (Christian in the Met revival of Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac) was primed for this high-lying lyric role. He even sounded like a younger version of Plácido Domingo, who took on the sly Signor Schicchi in this performance, and will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his debut at the Met this season. Stephanie Blythe repeated her imposing Zita, with Maurizio Muraro as Simone, Lindsay Ammann as Ciesca, Jeff Mattsey as Marco, Gabriella Reyes as Nella, Tony Stevenson as Gherardo, Patrick Carfizzi as Betto, and the other artists, all contributing to a unified ensemble. And that’s what counts in any Schicchi performance.

Zita (Stephanie Blythe), Nella (Gabriella Reyes), and Ciesca (Lindsay Ammann) sweet talk Schicchi (Placido Domingo)

As the star of the afternoon, Mr. Domingo proved once again that at 78 he can still deliver the goods, but barely. He sounded like his old self — that is, a tenor posing as a baritone trying to sing in the lower register. I’ve been critical about this for the last decade or so. I know it’s one way for him to prolong his singing career, and I know he thoroughly enjoys performing on the stage. But no matter how hard he tries or how much work he puts into it, Domingo simply does not sound like a baritone. This creates an imbalance in pieces that demand a firm and rich sound, something that, at THIS stage in his vocation, the artist does not command. With a 50-year career behind him, it is long past the time for Sr. Domingo to step off the stage and allow the next generation of talents to assume their rightful position.

He came off well enough on Saturday’s broadcast, though, injecting humor and humanity into this lustrous part. But again, I must stress that his voice was but a shadow of what it once was. Oh, well, I’ve groused about this matter long enough, so I’ll let bygones be bygones. Everyone had the time of their lives, so who am I to quibble? In fact, where most baritones run aground, in the arioso “Addio, Firenze, addio cielo divino” (“Goodbye, Florence, goodbye divine sky”), Domingo excelled. Bravo to that!

There’s one thing I am pleased to confirm: never again will these wondrous works be separated from one another, as they once were in the years after the premiere. Paired with a plethora of other operas (including Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle), Il Trittico can be enjoyed in its entirety as three parts of a unified whole. Father Dante would be well pleased!

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes