Opera North completes Puccini’s Il trittico, three contrasting short operas, with these brilliantly successful productions. The comic one, Gianni Schicchi, was performed last year. Although notably different from each other, both Il tabarro (The Cloak) and Suor Angelica could both be studied for possible parallels with incidents and situations in the composer’s life and also for their connection with the sort of lurid stories favoured by journalists in the tabloid press in their versions of reality, because ‘lurid’ is not far in meaning from ‘melodramatic’, the descriptor most often applied to opera.

Ivan Inverardi (Michele) © Tristram Kenton
Ivan Inverardi (Michele)
© Tristram Kenton

The ominous black and white photograph used on the cover of the programme for Il tabarro appears to be of a murder victim on the ground looked at by a group of hatted detectives dressed 1940s–style. Perhaps they are on the New York waterfront. The setting for the opera is a barge on the River Seine, with stevedores lugging heavy sacks out of its hold. I was interested in the few changes made since 2004, when it was a component of Opera North’s Eight Little Greats series of short operas, and was impressed by revival director Michael Barker-Caven’s efforts to give it as much, if not more, force than a dozen years ago. The orchestra (conducted by Jac van Steen) brought out wonderfully what Puccini intended – a doom-laden atmosphere where terrible disasters are likely to loom out of the river’s mists as it becomes clear that the barge’s master, Michele, is being supplanted by young sack-shifter Luigi in the affections of his wife, Giorgetta.

Stuart Laing (Tinca) Richard Mosley-Evans (Talpa) Giselle Allen, David Butt Philip (Luigi) © Tristram Kenton
Stuart Laing (Tinca) Richard Mosley-Evans (Talpa) Giselle Allen, David Butt Philip (Luigi)
© Tristram Kenton

A charismatic Ivan Inverardi as Michele delivered a momentous, well-differentiated “Nulla, silenzio!” from high above the audience on the barge’s roof, and was adept at conveying despairing anguish with his wide gestures, yet was almost upstaged (not inappropriately) by Luigi. Here, tenor David Butt Philip was stunning. His powerful, razor-edged voice cut through everything, especially in “Hai ben ragione (You are quite right)”. Soprano Giselle Allen was a subtly nuanced Giorgetta, perhaps a little too sweet, at her best with mezzo Anne-Marie Owens, who gave us a carefully-studied, memorable La Frugola (Scavenger). The final moments were just right, with Michele’s tarpaulin-sized cloak pulled away to reveal the freshly-stabbed Luigi’s body, followed by a silhouette tableau.

Lighting designer Mark Doubleday was fruitfully employed in Suor Angelica as well, which is set in a convent of the extremely strict variety, a fact emphasised early on by a series of punishments and penitences, the sort of repressive establishment which could become a subject for satire. But not here. The nuns are all glared down upon relentlessy, and all transgressions have unpleasant consequences, sometimes symbolised by huge shadows.

Anne-Sophie Duprels (Suor Angelica) and Soraya Mafi (Suor Genovieffa) © Tristram Kenton
Anne-Sophie Duprels (Suor Angelica) and Soraya Mafi (Suor Genovieffa)
© Tristram Kenton

Anne-Sophie Duprels was a childlike Angelica, but only at first sight, because her voice has seductive intensity, and her acting told us of years of frustration and humiliation. In her plain habit, she contrasted perfectly with her aunt, a princess in an expensively tailored yellow outfit who has come to visit after seven years of neglect, because Angelica was dumped in the convent to punish her for the terrible shame of having an illegitimate child. Patricia Bardon presented us with a deeply unlikeable character, who moved with an arrogant strut and seemed to snarl out certain phrases and accusations while singing crisply and precisely. This was the most effective scene, which ended with Angelica prostrate, nuns steering her fingers to a pen to sign away her share of an inheritance. Angelica had asked her aunt about the fate of her son, and the reply telling her that he had died, following a silence, was gripping.

Anne-Sophie Duprels (Suor Angelica) © Tristram Kenton
Anne-Sophie Duprels (Suor Angelica)
© Tristram Kenton
Angelica takes poison (as did Puccini’s teenage housemaid Doria Manfredi after false accusations from his wife Elvira of being his secret mistress) and prays to the Holy Virgin to rescue her (“O Madonna, Madonna, salvami, salvami”), an excellent scene in which Duprels displays all her considerable coloratura credentials – but then, as she dies, has to encounter the Virgin herself along with her dead son.

This supernatural happening was represented by a circular screen with changing video images of distant galaxies and a floating womb-like bubble containing a foetus. Duprels walks towards this naked, to freeze into a silhouette tableau – which had too many connotations with a Science Fiction film. A bright light might have been enough.