Following a string of misses, the Theater an der Wien emerges from its recent dry patch with a new production of Puccini’s triptych which offers a winning cast, the best playing heard at the house in months, and a smart production.

Gianni Schicchi © Werner Kmetitsch
Gianni Schicchi
© Werner Kmetitsch

Without imposing too restrictive a sense of narrative continuity on the three self-contained one-acters, director Damiano Michieletto uses allusive imagery to emphasize the bond between parent and child, and associated themes of blame and guilt. His approach is not radically invasive, with overlapping threads kept neat and linear, but despite some additions one can take or leave – in Gianni Schicchi, ultrasound photos for Lauretta are gazed at ponderously – the cross-referencing works eloquently.

At the reading of the will in that opera, revealing that patriarch Buoso Donati has left his considerable fortune to a monastery, his family reacts by shedding their clothes before turning to the bed and whipping the corpse with the garments; in their resentful eyes the shirt has been taken off their backs, while a dead body buried by overcoats is a sight eerily familiar from Il tabarro. In Suor Angelica, the setting is an austere, institutional laundry room with the bleaching of grimy fabric again making a point with clothing; tempting overload at the very end of the evening, we see Schicchi impart his blessing to the young couple wearing the same improbably trendy anorak Michele sports in Il tabarro. In all three operas, the recurring symbols of a soft-soled pair of infant’s shoes and a toy train come to haunt the characters, most strikingly with Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, who fixates on the train (previously seen in the terror-stricken hands of Suor Angelica), unaware of how he came to acquire it and increasingly inquisitive about what it represents.

Paolo Fantin’s set consists of shipping containers which form a suitably humdrum industrial setting for Il tabarro, and in an arresting segue the walls are slowly lifted – while the distraught Giorgetta has her hair cropped in degrading fashion – to reveal a clinical look of tiled walls and sterile fixtures for Suor Angelica. In Gianni Schicchi the containers are fully opened, exposing interiors covered in garish wallpaper, and at the very end the mercenary relatives are herded into a corner of the set to howl with indignation as the metal walls rise around them.

Patricia Racette’s well rounded voice and smooth legato offered allure enough for Luigi in Il tabarro without making her too assertive a Giorgetta, while her Suor Angelica affectingly balanced intensity and vulnerability, saving overpowering rawness for the very end (in this production played cynically as a deception, with the Principessa parading her niece’s living child around the convent). Roberto Frontali sounded a touch too uniform and stout as Michele, but his turn as a well-intentioned and avuncular Schicchi was carried off with flair. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, appearing as a high-society grande dame in Suor Angelica, was cold of character and stern in voice as the ruthlessly unpitying Principessa, whereas ladling on the camp made her Zita seem quite the most shameful character in Gianni Schicchi. Her rich contralto comes with a gift for bringing text to life in inimitable style, as witnessed in the faked reverence and barely concealed expectation of a comically solemn “E aperto!” upon ripping open Buoso Donati’s will.

Maxim Aksenov worked impressively around his limits as Luigi, with presence and projection belying his narrow vibrato and smallness of voice, and no sign of strain where things might have sounded pinched at the top. Paolo Fanale’s Rinuccio seemed, again, a size or two too small for Puccini, but his youthful timbre and authentic Italian sound was by no means disappointing. Ekaterina Sadovnikova made more of an impression in the minor role of Suor Genovieffa than as Lauretta, though perhaps little can be done, even with the simple, understated purity here, to make “O mio babbino caro” sound any less hackneyed.

That is, until one hears the way it was conducted, with a more pronounced, yet still pleasingly blended, solo horn following the famous octave leap at the sixth with easy, elastic legato. Attention paid to more complex inner voices elsewhere in all three operas, perhaps most noticeably in Suor Angelica, showed how inventively variegated Puccini’s orchestral textures can be, and added to the continuity of line evident throughout. The sense of calculation which can be heard to lace this music at its most wrenching moments – as Puccini scholar Andrew C. Davis describes it, “[Puccini] systematically withholds until pivotal dramatic junctures the most traditional of his musical tokens in order to heighten their effect on his listening audience” – was well concealed, with authenticity brought to the climactic points of Il tabarro and Suor Angelica through careful pacing and a breath-like welling over of tension from within rather than intensification driven from the podium.

That same natural quality was also prominent in the ebb and flow of Il tabarro’s primary thematic pattern and the rhapsodic duet between the young lovers in Gianni Schicchi. With the RSO Wien on first-rate form and showing evidence of meticulous rehearsal, it seems fair to credit Kirill Petrenko, who until shortly before opening night had prepared this production, before suffering a pit injury which triggered his recurring back problems. It was however the more obscure Israeli conductor Rani Calderon, taking over at a day’s notice, who brought the playing to fruition so remarkably. It is the custom in Vienna to reward conductors willing to step in at the last minute with engagements further down the line, and with Calderon it would certainly be interesting to hear more from him.