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 Puccini, Il trittico:  Soloists, orchestra and chorus, San Francisco Opera, Patrick Summers, conductor. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 30.9.2009 (HS)

Il Tabarro

Patricia Racette
Luigi: Brandon Jovanovich
Michele: Paolo Gavanelli
La Frugola: Catherine Cook
Il Talpa: Andrea Silvestrelli
Il Tinca: Matthew O'Neill
A Song Vendor: Thomas Glenn

Suor Angelica

Sister Angelica:
Patricia Racette
The Princess: Ewa Podleś
The Abbess: Meredith Arwady

Gianni Schicchi

Gianni Schicchi:
Paolo Gavanelli
Lauretta: Patricia Racette
Rinuccio: David Lomeli
Zita: Meredith Arwadi
Simone: Andrea Silvestrelli

Patrick Summers
Director: James Robinson
Set Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Bruno Schwengl
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

Patricia Racette ( Giorgetta) and  Brandon Jovanovich (Luigi) in Il Tabarro

Puccini’s Il trittico, his much-loved triple-play of one-act operas, has been absent from the San Francisco Opera stage since 1952. Individual parts of it played here, including a memorable 1971 “Il Tabarro” that starred Leontyne Price. But not the whole thing. Maybe that’s why it felt so fresh.

Several elements made this go-round memorable, not least the riveting portrayals of the three starring female roles by the soprano Patricia Racette. Paolo Gavanelli commanded the stage for his two roles, Ewa Podleś made a magnificent company debut in her one scene, and conductor Patrick Summers drew idiomatic and perfectly placed playing from the orchestra. Director James Robinson imposed no personal concept on the piece, and showed versatility by inducing gasps in the verism opener, “Il Tabarra,” sobs in “Suor Angelica” and well-timed laughs in the finale, “Gianni Schicchi.”

A local favorite, Racette came up through the company’s Merola and Adler Fellows program and has turned in some of the company’s most superlative performances, including Butterfly (twice), Mimì, Jenufa and Violetta. Puccini really wants three soprano types for these roles, including a sexy verismo style from Giorgetta in “Tabarro,” then a full-on dramatic style for Angelica, and finally a light lyric for the youthful Lauretta in “Schicchi.” Racette simply inhabited the roles, physically, dramatically and vocally. As Giorgetta she conveyed how a sex-starved young wife can long for trysts with a convenient stevedore. As Lauretta, she bounced around the stage in a pink frock, deploying a repertoire of teenagers’ gestures, including stomping off the stage when she is banished to the balcony while the relatives hatch their devious plans in “Schicchi.” Her “O mio babbino, car” was gorgeously sung while she pouted and posed in a perfect parody of a pleading teenage girl.

But the towering achievement of the evening was her turn as Angelica, seven years a nun in penance for bearing a son out of wedlock. Her scene with Podleś, a low mezzo-soprano whose vocalism and stage presence are legendary, was all-consuming, as she responded with real-looking emotions to the horrible news she hears from her imperious aunt. She was magnificent in “Senza mamma,” her aria upon hearing of her son’s death, and her own death scene that followed was both plausible and heart-wrenching.

Podleś, for her part, conveyed the disdain her character has for Angelica, but you can see it chip away as she sees the effect the news has on the nun. Vocally, she displayed a seamless legato that made her music flow and clarity of diction that left no doubt what she meant.

Robinson and set designer Allen Moyer, who conceived this production for New York City Opera, provided eye-catching backgrounds that updated some elements without harming the story. “Tabarro” was a stylized barge downstage with a Paris walkway upstage, all fit into a set shaped like a rectangular megaphone. A harshly lit mid-20th-century common room, with Angelica’s indoor plants to one side and small apothecary cabinets to the rear, worked effectively as the setting for “Angelica,” if less pleasant to the eye. “Schicchi” brought back the megaphone shape, this time covered in a black-and-white op-art pattern, the back sliding away to reveal a picture window and Florence beyond.

There were some nice directorial touches. In “Tabarro,” Giorgetta uses the top of the barge’s stairway housing to pose seductively for her lover, out of sight of her husband Michele below. In “Angelica,” a child representing her son appears at the glass door to the room as she dies without the usual halo lighting that makes the scene so obvious in other productions. “Schicchi” keeps the deceased Buoso in view the whole time, rather than squirreling him a way in some closet. When Schicchi changes into the dead man’s night shirt, the family dresses the decades in Schicchi’s clothing, sitting him up in a chair and fitting him with sunglasses and a cigarette. Shades of the film comedy “Weekend at Bernie’s.” It was very funny. One of the relatives, Zita, hastens the death by using a pillow to suffocate Buoso. The room is filled with cheap chairs, tables and a television with rabbit ears. In the melee at the end, Schicchi lets the relatives make off everything, but he returns with the one item of value, a small Giacometti sculpture.

Gavanelli was impressive in both leading baritone roles. He is burly, but not a big man, yet he managed to make himself menacing as Michele, the jealous husband in “Tabarro.” He wields a secure, honey-toned baritone that sails high with ease, which served him well in “Schicchi.” The recurring tune to “addio, Firenze” starts high and he spilled it out with a lovely lyric sound. His stocky stature and bald head made him seem like the perfect confidence man to pull off his charade as Buoso, even though he really didn’t look at all like him.

The tenors weren’t bad, either. Brandon Jovanovich cut a rough-hewn matinee idol swath through the role of Luigi, the love interest in “Tabarro,” singing with clarity and ease. And David Lomeli provided a ringing lyric tenor for Rinuccio, Lauretta’s swain in “Schicchi.”

The entire cast was strong musically and dramatically. Many of the smaller roles were played by former members of the company’s Merola program. Of special merit were mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as Frugola, the busybody wife of one of the stevedores in “Tabarro,” and golden-voiced mezzo-soprano Meredith Arwady as the Abbess in “Angelica” and Zita in “Schicchi.”

The cumulative effect of the three operas had to be exactly what Puccini intended: a shocker for starters, a rip-your-heart-out tragedy and then a deft comedy to send you out into the night smiling. The cast, conductor, orchestra, sets and direction made it work so well that, 91 years after its debut in New York, “Il trittico” felt like Puccini just wrote it. You can’t ask for much more in the opera house.

Harvey Steiman

Picture © Cory Weaver

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