Sunday, 31 December 2017

Puccini - Il Trittico (Munich, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Il Trittico

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2017

Kirill Petrenko, Lotte de Beer, Wolfgang Koch, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Yonghoon Lee, Ermonela Jaho, Michaela Schuster, Claudia Mahnke, Ambrogio Maestri, Rosa Feola, Pavol Breslik, Kevin Conners

Staatsoper.TV Live - 23 December 2017 

For me personally, if you want a showcase for the composer's work, Puccini's trittico consists of La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and Tosca. That's not a terribly original selection I admit, but they are each pinnacles of popular Italian opera that have delighted audiences for over a hundred years, and they do reflect the range of prime Puccini. On the other hand, the idea of watching those three operas back to back is perhaps too much for any sensitive mortal to endure, so fortunately Puccini has a rather more accessible and less emotionally fraught option, although anyone watching the Suor Angelica section of the Bavarian State Opera's 2017 production of Il Trittico might have just cause to dispute that point.

There's a case to be made that the heightened human dramas of each of the three short opera that form Il Trittico are just concentrated essence of Puccini, and indeed there is some correspondence with the composer's great full-length operas. Il Tabarro covers much of the same range as La Bohème (and even directly references that opera); Suor Angelica is a variation of sorts on Madama Butterfly's mother forced to abandon her child; and Gianni Schicchi... well, Gianni Schicchi just stands in a category entirely of its own, not only among Puccini's compositions, but as pretty much the best and funniest work of comic opera ever written.

Il Trittico is not only a showcase of some of Puccini's best writing, but it can also be a showcase for a director who is unable to resist the temptation to try to link them at least thematically, since there is little common convergence of tone, period or character between the three short works. Lotte de Beer connects the three pieces in only the most abstract of ways for the new production in Munich. Each of the one-act operas remains in the period of its original setting, and plays out closely to the libretto, but each take place within the wide opening of what looks like a large tunnel. The concept behind this is something to do with time, connecting the past with the future, but it's not something that makes a great impression or present the works in any new or revelatory way.

It's a bit unimaginative but it's in keeping with the more half-way house that the Bayerische Staatsoper have been employing recently, moving back a little from the more extreme ends of Regietheater. It might not be as adventurous, but it does seem to be working much more consistently than the hit-and-miss approach of recent years. As far as Il Trittico goes, Bernhard Hammer's set designs do at least narrow the stage down to a tighter focus that emphasises the emotional density of the works, while Lotte de Beer's relatively straightforward direction lets the dramas showcase their own qualities.

Each of the dramas plays out then strictly in period costume and according to the original intentions of the libretto, and the lighting ensures that the mood of each piece is faithfully represented on the stage and that it never feels clinical, even if there are few of the usual props. The only extravagant effects are those which are called for in the music and the drama, with one of the sections of the tunnel rotating 360-degrees at the concluding dramatic revelations of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, lifting their moments of death and transcendence to another level. Gianni Schicchi, as I say, is a very different kind of work with a punchline all of its own, and that's taken into account here without the need for 'special effects'.

Aside from the concluding moments however, Il Tabarro feels mostly functional in the Munich production. It is nonetheless effective in its emotional expression and the impressionistic dark undercurrents are realised in the intense musical direction of Kirill Petrenko, and in the singing performances of Wolfgang Koch, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Yonghoon Lee. As the final piece Gianni Schicchi is often a winning conclusion to Il Trittico if a director can really tap into the work's rhythm and humour, and Lotte de Beer captures that well. There are neat little touches to the comic acting and great timing from Michaela Schuster as Zita and Ambrogio Maestri as Schicchi, with some sweet singing from Rosa Feola and Galeano Salas standing in for Pavol Breslik, who lost his voice and had to mime the role.

It's Suor Angelica however that is the standout piece here, the main course to Il Tabarro's starter and Gianni Schicchi's icing on the dessert cake (someone has been watching too much Masterchef on TV recently), and what makes this Suor Angelica so memorable is the extraordinary performance of Ermonela Jaho. The Albanian soprano has taken on the role of Sister Angelica before, most notably in the Royal Opera House production of Il Trittico available on DVD, and she is always impressive, but it seems like there are still depths in it for her to explore. Vocally, it's a stunning performance, marrying technique to an intense dramatic delivery that pushes at the limits, with precisely pitched high notes carrying a distinctive timbre that is Jaho's own sound and expression. It's probably the single greatest performance I've seen in an opera all year.

Since I'm making a big deal about this being a showcase work (in case you haven't noticed), one shouldn't neglect the part played by Kirill Petrenko's conducting of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. By no means does he attempt to find a common sound for the work as a whole, but finds the appropriate tempo and tenor for each individual piece. More than just being a distillation of classic Puccini pieces, Il Trittico is Puccini+, where the composer explores new sound worlds. There are hints of Wagner's Flying Dutchman in the situation and dynamic of Il Tabarro, you can hear the influence of Impressionism and there is even some dissonance as Puccini responds to demands of each of the works in new creative ways. It's an evening of marvellous music that the Bayerische Staatsoper's Il Trittico showcases brilliantly.

The next live broadcast from the Bavarian State Opera is Wagner's Die Walküre on 22nd January 2018.  Conducted by Kirill Petrenko, Directed by Andreas Kriegenburg, the cast includes Simon O'Neill, Anja Kampe, Nina Stemme, Wolfgang Koch and Ekaterina Gubanovana.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV