martes, junio 14, 2011

Puccini´s problematic “Trittico” gets a wet production

            Giacomo Puccini´s "Trittico" is made up of three completely contrasting pieces each lasting 55 minutes: the fully "verista" "Il Tabarro" ("The Tabard"), a sordid social drama; "Suor Angelica", the melodramatic account of a suicide and a miracle; and "Gianni Schicchi", a sparkling medieval comedy about greed. They were written between 1915 and 1918 (war years). The latter has been very successful on its own, as the only and accomplished comedy by Puccini. The others have always been less praised and with reason, especially in the case of the weak "Suor Angelica", although in recent years (and I agree) "Il Tabarro" has gained some currency.
            The Colón and other opera companies have programmed the separate pieces with some assiduity but only the Colón has offered the complete "Trittico" and it figures, for it is expensive to put on with its three very different settings and the vast amount of artists it needs: 38 characters, and double the number if you include members of the second cast and covers. The last time was in 1997 with Sherrill Milnes and the vastly superior production by Fabrizio Melano and David Reppa as compared with the one inflicted upon the current audience by Stefano Poda (debut).
            "Wet production", says the title of this article. Indeed it was: in one of those incongruous "concept ideas" that pass for production in Europe nowadays, Poda asked of his stage designer to provide an ample pond smack across the stage, and if it makes a bit of sense in "Il Tabarro" (the action is supposed to happen in or near a barge on the Seine in Paris), it is completely nonsensical in "Gianni Schicchi" and even more so in "Suor Angelica": to see Buoso Donati´s relatives carousing and splashing each other, or the poor nuns wading through water, is certainly nonsense.
            Given the special character of this Puccini opus, it is relevant to analyze each opera in turn. Matters were aggravated by the equally absurd contradiction of Puccini´s intentions, ending with "Suor Angelica" instead of with "Gianni Schicchi": we go morosely home instead of laughing.
                                                 "IL TABARRO"
            Social opera isn´t at all common: the somber tale traced by Giuseppe Adami´s libretto gives a stark picture of life in the docks of Paris at the start of the Twentieth-Century: the adultery that ends in crime is powerful and the atmosphere, believable, although diluted by such things as the singer of ditties and the duo of young lovers, charming episodes peppered on the main drama, as are the character ariettas of the ragpicker Frugola.  Michele, the owner of the barge; his young wife, Giorgetta; and her lover, the stevedore Luigi, are true to life and sing powerful music. 
            There was a double cast. Giorgetta was sung by Amarilli Nizza, an interesting Italian soprano (debut) whose timbre is rather too incisive but with true verista instincts, and by our Haydée Dabusti, making an unfairly delayed first appearance at the Colón and singing with beautiful timbre, fine line and convincing acting. Both Micheles were admirable: the distinguished Catalan Juan Pons in his third visit to BA, still keeping his quality after a career of more than three decades, and Luis Gaeta in a perfectly delineated and sung impersonation, full of contained anger. Luigi needs a full dramatic voice and Carl Tanner certainly delivered powerful high notes with his burly frame;  he looks Nordic, though, and his singing wasn´t Italianate (the hand programme biography didn´t reveal his nationality). Fernando Chalabe, in the all-Argentine cast, acted woodenly but gave out clean Medieterranean sounds and fine diction. Polish contralto Agnes Zwierko´s deep tones weren´t always accompanied with enough characterisation in her Frugola, although she was much better than Alicia Cecotti. Her husband, Talpa, was well taken by Mario De Salvo and Christian Peregrino, and the other stevedore, Tinca, was similarly convincing as sung by Gabriel Renaud and Gabriel Centeno, the latter with fresher voice. The young voices of Duilio Smiriglia, Marina Silva, Oriana Favaro and Santiago Bürgi gave pleasure in episodic parts.
            Richard Buckley is a seventyish American conductor with vast experience; he made a distinguished debut, always in command and in style, extracting fine and blended sound from the orchestra.  But the end result was compromised by the vagaries of the production, where we were asked to believe that somewhow the distant barge and the proscenium acting area were the same thing, and the constant darkness as well as the morose movements of vast quantities of extras were excessive.
            The libretto by Giovacchino Forzano, inspired by a couple of lines in Dante´s "Inferno" about the protagonist (only reference to the "Divina Commedia" in the whole "Trittico"), is funny, witty and savage in its satire of greedy relatives; we certainly agree with Schicchi´s ruse, for after all he gives a good many lands and florins to the unworthy family, and if he keeps the best for himself (house, mule and mills) he also gives his support to Rinuccio´s and Lauretta´s marriage. And the music shows that Puccini could do comedy wonderfully (much as "Falstaff" proves in the case of Verdi).
            I never thought I could be almost bored by "Schicchi", but producer and lighting designer Poda accomplished this "feat". Apart from the infantile jokes and the silly water effects, we weren´t given the merest inklings of Florence in a work that celebrates the city explicitly, there was constant darkness where there should be light, and (as in the other two works) the costumes were relentlessly black, as well as completely neutral. I found myself sorely missing the charm and appositeness of the production by Jorge de Lassaletta in a production at the Colón about six years ago for the theatre´s Institute, with its scrupulous evocation of Medieval times and infectious sense of fun. Here Medieval times were inexistent, the charm and quaintness of episodes such as the Notary´s and the Doctor´s went for nothing, even when sung by talented artists (Sebastiano De Filippi, Fernando Grassi). Poda didn´t  age Simone, who is "the oldest", as the relatives keep repeating, and  didn´t  try to give Schicchi´s appearance some similitude with Rinuccio´s description of him.  Only in the scene where, up in a gigantic bed, Schicchi dictates his testament, was there any approximation to the fun of the piece, although the collaboration of the group of artists playing the relatives was impeccable, they really worked as a team.
            Pons sang well as Schicchi, but his acting had less point than expected; he was bettered by Gaeta, an excellent actor, though even he was subdued as compared with his splendid job a couple of years back for Buenos Aires Lírica. Both the petite Beatriz Díaz (Spanish, debut) and Eliana Bayón sang sweetly "O mio babbino caro", that plum of an aria. Darío Schmunck was his reliable self as Rinuccio. Of the relatives Zwierko (Zita) and De Salvo (Simone) have the only parts that go beyond ensemble work; most of the artists did well, although I disagree with Osvaldo Peroni´s exaggeration.  Buckley again showed his acumen.
            I dislike this piece with its mediocre libretto, for it gives us bathos rather than pathos, and a full half of it is dramatically irrelevant. The opera properly starts when already twenty minutes have gone by, in the crucial scene between the Aunt-Princess and Angelica, sent in typical seventeenth-century fashion to a convent and a life of penitence due to illicit love. But after that things deteriorate with Angelica´s suicide and particularly the kitschy miracle in which she is pardoned and sent to Paradise to join her dead infant son.  There are some good Puccinian moments but not enough, and we frankly don´t care about the little incidents between nuns and their authorities. For some reason there was a cut in the score, eliminating the part of the nurse-nun. 
            But an intense artist in the lead part can´t fail to impress, and both Nizza and the Argentine Virginia Wagner (who lives in Europe) acted and sung the arduous part with fierce emotion and fine top register. Zwierko (debut) was a vocal rather than a dramatic presence as the Princess. I would single out in the smaller parts the fine voices of Bayón, María Luján Miravbelli, Favaro, Victoria Gaeta , Laura Polverini and Florencia Machado. I was disappointed with Cecotti, Lucila Ramos Mañé and Fabiola Masino.
            Again Buckley was a tower of strength and again Poda and his collaborators (Daniel Feijoo, stage designer, and Cristina Pineda, costumes) failed to meet the needs of the work. "Suor Angelica" is static by itself and certainly needs all the help it can have to become alive; you need white costumes (they are specified), not black, a stage area that agrees with Forzano´s specifications (it didn´t), as fast a motion as allowed by the libretto, and some commonsensical regard to the few moments of action provided by the text. So I went out crushed and unhappy by such sad misconceptions. Better luck next "Trittico".

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