Tuesday, 13 September 2011

reNUNciation - Puccini Il trittico, Royal Opera House

A fabulously enjoyable evening of Puccini Il Trittico marks the start of the new Royal Opera House season. What fun, what flair! What's more, it's shockingly original. Catch this for Suor Angelica alone if needs must - Richard Jones brings out levels in Suor Angelica that completely overturn the bad press the opera usually gets. This is the kind of hit any house needs to kickstart a new season (infinitely better than yet another pointless Jonathan Miller revival).

The central premise of Suor Angelica is that holiness comes with renouncing all desire, even if it's as innocent as wanting to see a lamb. After all, The Lamb of God is better than any gambolling future cutlet. In this convent, the nuns are cut off from the real world, even though they run a hospital - no doctors, no parents, kids who don't cry. Miriam Beuther's antiseptic set reflects the unnatural orderliness of this situation, where healthy young woman waste away, substituting visions and miracles for normal life. Maybe they're happy, but achieving this rarified state of grace takes more courage than most of us can cope with. Richard Jones and Miriam Beuther manage to decry the arid regimentation of religious life and yet celebrate the spiritual liberation of those who truly believe. Quite miraculous!

Forget, then, the maudlin pseudo-morality that attaches to this opera's usual image. Suor Angelica has been locked up and her inheriutance taken from her to make her atone. She's had a child out of wedlock. Not all so different from the Virgin Mary herself. No wonder this convent is dedicated to the Mother of God.  Po-faced productions don't get this at all, but you can just bet that Puccini knew what he was doing. But Suor Angelica has such spirit that she fights back, despite appearing meek. As if she didn't know suicide was a mortal sin? But she acts on her instincts (which is why she got pregnant in the first place). Golden lights shine outside the spartan ward, and the nuns speak of mysterious signs the Virgin sends of divine mercy. Sure enough, Suor Angelica beats Hell, and her hypocritical aunt, and gets reunited with her son. Conventional piety turned on its head!

Conventional opera conventions turned on their head too. Gianni Schicchi is the most popular of the triptych Il trittico, and this production (Jones/John MacFarlane) is famous for its high spirited farce on 50's materialism. Yet there was a small exodus after Suor Angelica. Maybe people wanted an early night, but quite probably, they thought it wise to leave on a high after this wonderful Suor. The best singing of the whole evening, even though there aren't any showy male parts. Ermolena Jaho sang a superb Suor Angelica. She had the part so well characterized that moments of vulnerability only enhanced the sense of her youth and heartbreak. I've only heard Jaho once, as Mimi in 2009, and wasn't overwhelmed, but friends who heard her on subsequent evenings said she was wonderful. No First Night nerves this time.

Jaho would have stolen the show (and the whole evening) but for Anna Larsson's Princess. Now that's a mezzo voice with real drama and womanly sensuality, no prissiness at all. Costumed by Nicky Gillibrand, Larsson moves like a a snake, another potent religious symbol, and suggests that Angelica's racy nature might be hereditary, except that auntie didn't get caught. Wonderful characterization - don't take the Princess as dried-out spinster again. Excellent smaller roles - Anna Devin's Sister Genovieffa so charming you wonder why she didn't make it to the Wigmore Hall Song Competition finals. Very inspired playing from the pit, too. Antonio Pappano seemed exhilarated, so the music was energetic and even...dare I say... wickedly witty.

Why the full triptych? The three operas together make a huge impact, greater than on their own. The dark, claustrophobic Il tabarro (foreboding grim and grey) made the supernatural glow of Suor Angelica even more surreal. The Princess's greed makes way for petit-bouregois greed in Gianni Schicchi. Thematically, plenty of links, too, like sex and greed, frustration and thwated dreams. Please read this account of the Frankfurt Opera's Il trittico in 2008. Length apart, it's a pity that the three operas don't get done together more often. Each feels like a movement from a much larger work - what happens next in Il tabarro, for example? It's like a trailer for a film noir. What does Gianni Schicchi do with his ill-gotten gains ? Ironically, it's only Suor Angelica that works best as a stand alone, though interpretively it's the most complex of all.

Each of these three mini operas was beautifully realized and well sung (especially the tight ensemble in Gianni Schicchi)  Together they're unmissable. The Royal Opera House offerings this year looked solid rather han exciting on paper, but it just might prove to offer more surprises than we'd expect. Please see my article "Synchronized Swimming" - ROH 2011-2)  The ENO year looks more exciting in theory, but they are the ones starting the year with yet another meaningless Jonathan Miller revival.

PS -  Special mention of Ji-min Park's Songseller in Tabarro - outstanding voice. Time after time he does amazing things but in parts so small they get no attention. Everyone asks, who is this guy? He's an asset the ROH should use more often.

PS2 - delightful kid in Suor Angelica who acted up during the applause, trying to get the other boys to rebel, though they didn't. He was a natural ham, and irepressible. Was he doing an epilogue to the opera itself, where Suor Angelica herself doesn't conform?

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