With La bohème and Turandot the only two Franco Zeffirelli productions left at the Metropolitan Opera, it has fallen on Jack O’Brien’s (on Douglas W. Schmidt’s sets) 2007, extravagant Il trittico to hold up the house’s reputation for gargantuan reality. Each of the operas is concerned with death, but how different they are! Il tabarro is a nasty little work, almost perfect in its intensity, which ends with an older, cuckolded husband (Michele) murdering his younger wife’s lover; Suor Angelica sees death – indeed, suicide – as salvation and transcendence from a cloistered life lived to hide shame, and Gianni Schicchi turns the whole affair of death into farce, with a smart-aleck taking the place of a newly-dead rich man and re-dictating his will to omit the dead man’s relatives and leave everything of value to... himself. Correctly, Tabarro has a brownish, gloomy tinta; Angelica’s is silvery, and Schicchi’s is a kaleidoscope.

All three operas are strongly cast in this revival. Taking place on an inlet of the Seine with unlit factories looming, the murky reds, vaguely squalid surroundings and general sense of coarseness in Tabarro find a mirror in the ebb and flow of the dark strings and foghorn, an ideal foreboding of the tragedy to unfold. There are some stunning lyrical moments, but mostly this is pure verismo, with forceful exclamation. The final murder scene is awkwardly staged, with the strangled Luigi wrapped in Michele’s oversized cloak – he just sort of hangs there. The three singers interacted well, with Amber Wagner’s Wagnerian-sized, pitch-perfect voice dominating vocal proceedings, and Marcelo Álvarez, sounding fresher than he has in a few seasons (but still with his habit of lunging at high notes), inviting the audience to feel Luigi’s passion. George Gagnidze’s rough-edged baritone is just right for the enraged Michele. If all three acted in a hand-to-heart, generic fashion, it certainly didn’t take away from the fine singing.

The curtain goes up on the almost all-white set for Suor Angelica accompanied by high strings and solo flute; this patina remains until the entrance of Angelica’s aunt, the Princess, a haughty, pitiless aristocrat come to get Angelica’s signature on some papers, and tell the poor nun that her seven year old illegitimate son has died. Despite fine ensemble work by the various nuns – MaryAnn McCormick, Maureen McKay, Jane Shaulis and others – all attention remained riveted on Kristine Opolais and Stephanie Blythe in the central roles. Ms Opolais’ voice and commitment have grown considerably since her Mimì and Butterfly here; happily placed at the front of the stage, her voice rose into the auditorium, the tone rounder than previously, her fraught demeanor a pity to behold. As the terrible news dawned on her, her body sank to the floor; we watched a woman break. “Senza mamma” was sung so endearingly that the Met audience was still. Stephanie Blythe, regal in bearing and tone, proved herself again a veritable force of nature.

Ms Blythe was back for Gianni Schicchi, as the greedy and manipulative Zita. The full force of the orchestra raucously announced the madcap situation, and the large bedroom – the setting is updated to 1959 – housing the newly dead Buoso Donati, was chock filled with candlesticks, a chandelier, tables, armchairs, and the entrance to a WC. Searching for the will, the relatives tear the room apart, searching under, over and between things. Once found, their hatred seethes, the ensemble performing as one. In addition to Ms Blythe, the dark-voiced bass baritone Maurizio Muraro as Simone and tenor Atalla Ayan as Rinuccio stood out among the relatives, and watching and listening to Gabriella Reyes as Nella flirt with Schicci was one of the evening’s delights.

And halfway through the opera, the trickster/hustler Schicchi shows up, in the person of former-tenor Plácido Domingo, celebrating his 50th year at the Met. One can continue to carp about the fact that his foray into baritone roles is not particularly successful, but this comic part, not reliant on beauty of tone, legato or anything other than sass and playfulness, is certainly more winning than was his Germont. Bounding about the stage like a man half his age, Domingo was the evening’s draw, and if he was not the high point vocally, he definitely added luster. I found Kristina Mkhitaryan’s Lauretta wanting; her one great moment, “O mio babbino caro” was neither pleading nor girlish, but was positively aggressive. 

Bertrand de Billy was considerate of the singers – one might say to a fault in Il tabarro, where a certain caution got in the way of the Grand Guignol. It worked brilliantly in Angelica, with the orchestral textures commenting on our heroine and enough room given for the attacks on the exposed high Cs to be effective. And the controlled rambunctiousness and vivid orchestral display in Schicchi ended the evening on a wonderfully wacky note.