S&H Opera Review

PUCCINI Il Trittico English National Opera, Coliseum, 8 March 2001 (SD)

Cynics claim that Puccini chose the triptych form for his next opera after Fanciulla because he had trouble developing his characters over a full-length opera and suffered crises of confidence in mid-composition (for example in Tosca, where he had already given the lovers a long duet to sing in Act 1). Whether or not this was its main motivation, Il Trittico certainly succeeds in bypassing that problem with its three strongly contrasting stories in the Grand guignol tradition ('something horrifying, something sentimental and a farce'), which provide variety rather than continuity and each need only one act-worth of character development.

Patrick Mason's 1998 Olivier Award-winning ENO production, revived tonight, brought out the contrasts in a big way, from the dark, brooding atmosphere of Il Tabarro to the jolly, well-lit splendour of Schicchi, with a Suor Angelica in a simple, sterile setting in between.

The evening ended in triumph, not only Schicchi's, but of the whole opera, well sung and acted with superb comic timing, above all from Andrew Shore, who stole the show in the title-role. Orchestra and singers, in perfect ensemble, unfailingly sought out the comedy of this hugely witty score (to an equally witty libretto by Forzano), from the rakishly mournful strings to the lugubriously cheeky oboe and bassoon.

If this was the ultimate feel-good Schicchi, Cheryl Baker's frustrated, 'trapped' wife and Peter Coleman-Wright's brooding, jealous Michele helped ensure this Tabarro had plenty of menace and melancholy. Nick Chelton's lighting, too, brought out well the gloom and mystery (everything except the barge and jetty being shrouded in fog, underlining Giorgetta's feeling of restriction) with a portentously blood-red sky. Though Barker looked rather more than 25, her lyrical and sensuous voice was a good foil for Coleman-Wright's dark, dry baritone and blended beautifully with Bonaventura Bottone's blithely heroic tenor in some soaring duets.

Suor Angelica sets an entirely different mood, of course. The mainly white stage here was suffused with a bright yellow Mediterranean light, though as in Tabarro the scene is quite stark and contained, the plain white convent block 'more like a crematorium than a convent', according to Andrew Clark's original review in Opera, 'matching the nuns' modest white habits'. The opera's strong vein of piety, which Puccini conjures up for example with a convent bell woven into the opening's hushed strings, benefited from the excellent ensemble, neat diction and chaste body language of the nuns' chorus. In contrast, Barker's Angelica gave full rein to her passion and anguish in her subsequent interview with the Princess, whose cold dignity was well-characterised by the black-clad Anna-Marie Owens. Though Barker, in her second role of the evening, became strident in some of the sustained high notes of her swansong; and there was a strong element of kitsch in the Virgin's appearance at the end.

At curtain-down I was left with the memory of three strikingly different vignettes, feeling pleasantly satisfied and less sated than by some full-length operas, as if having eaten three dainty dishes rather than one meatier one.

photographer Bill Rafferty

Sarah Dunlop

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