Gianni Schicchi, arguably opera’s comedy gold standard, has been performed in Scotland fairly regularly but we have to go back 65 years to the last time Il trittico was performed here with Suor Angelica and Il tabarro making up Puccini's trilogy. Under Sir David McVicar’s razor-sharp direction, Scottish Opera’s splendid 60th birthday present allowed us to see the whole work in context, like folding back the panels of a glorious triptych and gazing in sheer wonderment.

Sunyoung Seo (Giorgetta) and Roland Wood (Michele) in *Il tabarro)
© James Glossop

McVicar chose to set the operas 20 years apart from each other: Il tabarro staged in 1930s Paris on the grubby banks of the River Seine; Suor Angelica in an austere 1950s convent; and Gianni Schicchi in colourful 1970s Florence. Each opera is a simple snapshot of an event involving a death, but scratch the surface and Puccini entices us deeper into the darkness lurking just below, the three works combining into a huge emotional rollercoaster.

Viktor Antipenko (Luigi) and Sunyoung Seo (Giorgetta) in Il tabarro
© James Glossop

Barge life is tough and monotonous, cargos humped by poorly paid labourers in the gritty parts of the city. Tabarro tells the story of barge owner Michele and his free spirited wife Giorgetta, their relationship patchy after the death of their baby. It’s a brilliant slow-burn chiller, Puccini’s music peppered with the sounds of the river, the opera alive with dubious quayside characters including a song-seller flogging bits of Bohème and an out-of-tune organ grinder entertaining shopgirls. Charles Edwards’ quayside setting under a bridge captured grime and poverty, atmospherically lit by Ben Pickersgill. Everyone’s hopes and dreams are laid bare including Luigi, the stevedore in a clandestine relationship with Giorgetta. A misplaced flicker of a match, and Luigi is discovered by Michele who murders him covering the body with his cloak, the garment he used to wrap his wife and baby in to keep them warm from bitter river chill. In a finely sung cast, Russian tenor Viktor Antipenko was a strong, vibrant Luigi, Roland Wood a gruff, authoritative Michele and Korean soprano Sunyoung Seo was an outstanding Giorgetta, passionate in her duet with Luigi as Stuart Stratford stoked up the orchestra and Puccini’s music swelled.

Sunyoung Seo (Suor Angelica) and Karen Cargill (La zia principessa) in Suor Angelica
© James Glossop

The last Magdalene laundry closed in 1996 and McVicar has a baby being handed over to the nuns at the very start of Suor Angelica, turbocharging an already disturbing story into real event. Here, unmarried mothers live in the same building as the nuns, yet there is little sisterly communication as they do the humdrum washing and cleaning. The convent was lit in a grey monochrome apart from a sudden golden flash of sunlight coming through a window, so tiny the sisters have to take turns to view. Life in the convent is dull, the arrival of some food (which looked like it was straight off Michele’s barge) a pathetic highlight for the community. Sister Angelica’s knowledge of medicinal plants makes her the community’s healer, but unlike the other nuns who have entered the convent as a calling, Angelica was sent there by her aristocratic family as a punishment for having an illegitimate child. When Angelica’s aunt arrives to force Angelica to sign away her inheritance so her sister can be married, Angelica learns that her child died aged five. There was a lively ensemble of workaday nuns, but the stand-out was Karen Cargill as the aunt, giving an immense performance, a study in raw cruelty. Topping this high bar was Sunyoung  Seo as the desperate Angelica, her strong soprano overwhelmingly touching in “Senza mamma” before seeing a vision of her child calling to her from heaven as she dies by her own poison. 

Roland Wood (Gianni Schicchi) and ensemble in Gianni Schicchi
© James Glossop

Gianni Schicchi also depicts a difficult family and a death, this time one to laugh at as Buoso Donati passes away, leaving all his wealth to the monks, bypassing his greedy family. Edwards created a chaotic 1970s room, full of a lifetime’s keepsakes, books and papers which the family scatter everywhere in the search for the will. It’s all great fun, with lovingly created period clothing, terrible haircuts and wallpaper. Elgan Llŷr Thomas, as the lovesick Rinuccio, sang ardent praise for his home city in “Firenze è come un albero fiorito”, and Francesca Chiejina was showstopping in Lauretta's “O mio babbino caro”. McVicar kept everything busy busy with Roland Wood swaggering in as Schicchi, completely owning the role as he swindled the Donati family.

The whole triumphant evening looked wonderful, the three big sturdy sets complemented with lovingly detailed period costumes by Hannah Clark.  Stratford and the full orchestra were on top form, driving the action and inhabiting the different sound worlds. Operatic storytelling at its very best, a happy production team took their curtain calls to rousing cheers.