Opera Reviews
21 July 2024
Untitled Document

A revealing new look at scorned Puccini

by Steve Cohen

Puccini: Il tabarro
Puccini: Gianni Schicchi

Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia
April 2016 

At the height of his fame in 1918, Giacomo Puccini made an ambitious creative leap. He composed three one-act operas to be performed together, each one radically different in nature from the others.

They are linked only by the fact that each opera deals with the concealment of a death. Suor Angelica is mystical and religious, Gianni Schicchi is a farcical comedy, while Il tabarro (The Cloak) is a melodrama.

Nowadays it’s rare to see the three staged together because of (a) the high cost of three casts and (b) the length of the evening. And because some critics agree with what Samuel Chotzinoff wrote in the New York World: “Only Gianni Schicchi appears to have sufficient vitality to interest the Metropolitan customers. Suor Angelica and Il Tabarro [will inhabit] whatever bourne is set aside for the eternal reception of music that is stillborn.”

In his Trittico, Puccini displayed a mastery of orchestral instrumentation that’s far advanced from his La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. But it was not a critical or commercial success, and Puccini reluctantly agreed to have its components split apart. In subsequent years, the most neglected portion of it has been Il tabarro, and that’s what provides the most interest in this new AVA production.

The opera is dark and threatening, a melodrama of marital sleaze. It reminds us of 1940s film noire and of Jean Renoir’s moody French movies. Puccini described Il tabarro as "Grand Guignol" after the Paris puppet theater that featured graphic horror. We are on a barge on the Seine in Paris. The lapping waters are reflected in the orchestra, which includes chromatic chords reminiscent of Claude Debussy, who died at the age of 55 nine months before this opera’s premiere.

A love triangle involves Michele, a middle-aged barge owner and captain; his much-younger wife Giorgetta; and her even-younger lover, Luigi, who is one of her husband’s stevedores. Michele strangles Luigi to death and envelopes his body in his cloak, then opens it to reveal the dead body to Giorgetta.

Tabarro has had difficulty in finding fans. None of its characters are noble or appealing; the soprano is a slut, the tenor is an opportunist, and the baritone is a pathetic man who has to beg his wife to show him affection. Although the instrumental music is haunting, the vocal lines often cut against the orchestral tide. The orchestra creates color while the voices project blackness.

Yet this staging by the famed Tito Capobianco was gripping, the orchestra shone under the baton of Christofer Macatsoris, and the singing was on an excitingly high level. Despite the opera’s handicaps, the performance rose to passionate transcendence. Capobianco added some unexpected (and unwritten) action to the opera’s ending that made perfect sense. 

Jared Bybee displayed searing intensity as the older man driven to murder and made us care about his loveless existence. Vanessa Vasquez was intense as Giorgetta. Marco Cammarota was dark, handsome and dangerous as Luigi, with a gleaming voice.

Gianni Schicchi, presented after the intermission, shows a family of hypocrites duped out of their inheritance by a rogue. The music is bubbly, and includes a nice tenor aria and the lovely “O mio babbino caro,” one of the most famous of all soprano tunes.

The libretto is based on an incident in Dante's Divine Comedy, where Schicchi is condemned to hell for impersonating the deceased Buoso Donati and making a new will favorable to Schicchi. Dante's wife actually was of the Donati family, and the poet despised members of the peasant class such as Schicchi. But Puccini transformed Schicchi into a sympathetic character, and audiences root for him to succeed in his trickery against the greedy cousins, nieces and nephews of the Donati family.

Capobianco staged this comedy with ingenious exposure of the family’s scheming. Conductor Richard Raub and the orchestra accentuated the moments where clashing chords revealed dissonant modernity. In fact, some rhythmic moments in Schicchi parallel what the young Stravinsky was writing.

Nathan Milholin, the bass-baritone who rehearsed as Schicchi, became too ill to sing Saturday’s performance, so he acted the part while first-year AVA resident artist Ethan Simpson richly sang the music from the orchestra pit. Karen Barraza was the sweet-voiced lead soprano and Alasdair Kent sang fervently as her fiancee. Allegra De Vita was superb as the scheming niece Zita. Director Capobianco made a solo appearance at the end of Schicchi, speaking lines normally assigned to the title character: “Ditemi voi, signori, se i quattrini di Buoso potevan finir meglio di così?”

It’s worth noting that Capobianco started his career in his native Argentina as a baritone in 1949. One of Capobianco’s teachers had created the role of Gianni Schicchi for Puccini. This is quite an impressive legacy!

Text © Steve Cohen
Photo © Doria Bybee
Support us by buying from amazon.com!