Puccini's Il Trittico, performed last night at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, is a unique item in the repertoire: a series of three one act operas with little to link them except the composer's conceit of what would work together in an evening. Each opera clocks in at something under an hour, and despite the relatively short duration, each has plenty of time to develop its characters. And every one packs a powerful punch. There are two tragedies: Il Tabarro is a dark tale of adultery and murder, while Suor Angelica depicts the devastation that can be caused by over-zealous protection of family honour. For anyone who hasn't slit their wrists by the end of Suor Angelica, there is an opera buffa, Gianni Schicchi, a black-comic farce set in mediaeval Florence which imagines the deeds of one of the sinners mentioned briefly in Dante's Inferno.

© Opéra national de Paris / DR
© Opéra national de Paris / DR

The evening starts with Il Tabarro, set on a barge on the river Seine owned by 50 year-old Michele and his younger wife Giorgetta. It's not exactly easy living, and life is very tough indeed for the stevedores who load and unload the cargo. One of these, Luigi, is having an adulterous affair with Giorgetta, and tragic events unfold. The opera depicts the state of mind of each of these three characters with terrifying accuracy and startling economy: when the anguished Michele demands of Giorgetta why she does not love him as she did before, she answers simply Che Vuole? S'invecchia ("What do you want? People get older"). Three words of Italian communicate aeons of meaning. Last night saw strong performances from the three main characters, each of them utterly believable in their roles. Juan Pons, as Michele, was totally credible as he ran through the gamut of mindsets from benign taskmaster to tenderness to anger, while Marco Berti was ardent and possessive as the younger lover Luigi. Giorgetta was brilliantly sung and acted by Ukranian soprano Oxana Dyka making her Paris debut.

Suor Angelica is a tragedy on a more unusual theme in a very unusual format: an opera with an all-female cast. It is set in a convent in which Sister Angelica has been incarcerated for seven years: she was a born a princess and was consigned there by her aunt (and guardian) after bearing an illegitimate child. The opera's opening scenes are remarkable for their chilling depiction of the language of the convent: every sentence, however mundane, must be framed so as to imply devotion to the Virgin Mary. But the core of the opera is the scene in which her aunt arrives for a visit, an event which Angelica has been awaiting desperately as it is the first time in the seven years that she has heard a word from her family. The aunt, it turns out, is filled with implacable hatred for Angelica and the stain that her pregnancy has brought on the family honour, and lacks any sense whatsoever of human pity. Sung magnificently by Luciana d'Intino, she came across as the most coldly evil person I have ever watched in opera, contrasting with singing of pure beauty from Tamar Iveri as Angelica.

Margherita Palli's sets for each "panel of the triptych" were simple and dramatic, sharing an overall visual coherence: the river barge of Il Tabarro gave way in Suor Angelica to a giant statue of the Virgin lying on the ground with outstretched arm, clad in blue and garlanded in lilies. It was miraculously kitsch, yet executed with great style. When the curtain went up for Gianni Schicchi, however, the audience burst into spontaneous applause - the first time I've ever heard applause directly for the set design. Deep carmine flooring, walls and curtains surrounded the giant bed in which the rich Buoso has just died, brilliantly evoking both the opulence of the man and the fires of hell to which Schicchi is to be consigned by Dante. The bedchamber is complemented by lovingly portrayed views of mediaeval Florence in the distance.

The action revolves around Buoso's inheritance and the machinations of the lawyer Schicchi in his attempts to reclaim it from the friars. The grasping family members are painted hilariously, and there is a tender subplot of romance between Schicchi's daughter Lauretta and Buoso's nephew Rinuccio. Il Trittico has very few memorable set-piece arias, but one of them is extremely catching and features in "opera's greatest arias" collections: O mio babbino caro, in which Lauretta persuades her reluctant father to help the family because she will throw herself into the Arno if she can't have Rinuccio. Ekaterina Siurina sang Lauretta very pleasantly, but this performance of Gianni Schicchi was dominated by Juan Pons, who attacked the title role with verve and comic gusto. By the end, in which Schicchi files a plea of "extenuating circumstances" with the audience for his manifestly dishonest behaviour, I doubt that a single audience member would have refused his plea. If you're a lawyer or have lawyer friends, this is the opera for you. Such was the quality of the comedy that we left the opera house on a huge high with smiles on our faces - something that seemed terribly improbable after the desperate sadness of the first two operas.

The orchestra, conducted by Philippe Jordan, gave a thoroughly spirited rendering of all three works. The only criticism is that they frequently overpowered the singing. The Bastille is a vast space, and it must be difficult to maintain balance.

Seeing Il Trittico for the first time, I'm astonished that it's performed so rarely. These are three pieces of drama of the highest quality, which comes across as fresh, biting and relevant as when they were written, nearly a century ago. Opera Bastille's production brought them to life magnificently: it's an exceptional evening of opera. I'd happily recommend this both to seasoned opera-lovers and as an introduction to opera for lovers of straight drama.