For Puccini's three-opera evening Il trittico to be successful, two things have to happen. At the end of Suor Angelica, you should be in need of a stiff brandy, chocolate, razor blades or – at the very least – a fresh box of tissues. And at the end of the evening, as Gianni Schicchi makes his plea to the audience to ignore Dante depositing him in the fires of Hell and grant him extenuating circumstances, you should leave with a spring in your step and a smile on your face. And the two big arias – “Senza mamma” and “O mio babbino caro” – must have been comprehensively nailed. The Royal Opera's revival of Richard Jones' 2011 intelligently staged production achieves all these things, despite the occasional wobble along the way.
In the past, the all-female Suor Angelica has been the orphan of the three operas, often omitted altogether. But here, it was shown in its true colours as the most emotionally compelling – a masterwork of dramatic pacing as the gentle, reflective opening escalates into crisis without you really knowing how you got there. And what a crisis it was. The key moment, around which the whole triptych is balanced, is when Angelica, forced into a convent and abandoned there for seven years without news of her illegitimate son, faces her implacable aunt and tells her that another moment of silence will damn her for eternity. The confrontation was as strong as I have ever seen it. As the petite Ermonela Jaho faced up to the statuesque Anna Larsson, almost screaming “vi dannate per l'eternità” into her face, the tension was almost unbearable.
Jaho was magnificent. There was plenty to admire in terms of pure vocal technique – intonation spot on, perfectly controlled pianissimi, smoothness of phrasing – but it's the injection of emotion into the voice that was thrilling. "Senza mamma" melted every heart in the house. Larsson provided a superb foil, albeit with some notes not quite hit securely in the middle. But hats off to revival director Sarah Fahie: the performance of the ensemble was of consistent excellence in painting the backcloth of the convent against which the protagonists are set.
Il tabarro started well. Ultz's ultra-realistic set perfectly evokes the tough life of the Paris riverbank, and Nicola Luisotti's conducting of the overture set a high standard which the orchestra was to maintain throughout the evening. The score is filled with scenic details of Paris, from the gentle rocking of the river to distant snatches of music or church bells, and Luisotti allowed the details to come through clearly. Patricia Racette was a fine Giorgetta, credible in her acting and strong enough in voice to match the orchestral swell. Sadly, that can't be said of either Carl Tanner as her lover Luigi or Lucio Gallo as her husbad Michele: the crisis points in Il tabarro require Michele and Luigi to dominate the sound field above an orchestra which has swelled to fever pitch, and neither Tanner or Gallo were able to do this, the voices often getting lost altogether. I've heard both of these singers on far better form – Tanner last year and Gallo when he was in this production's first appearance in 2011. The smaller roles were well handled, most notably the Irina Mishura's La Frugola, who entertained with the patter about her cat, while Luis Gomes and Lauren Fagan made an engaging pair of river-gazing lovers.
Can there be a better role to make one's house début than Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi? There's not that much to do (you spend a lot of time on the balcony feeding the pet bird) and you get a short, utterly schmaltzy aria, “O mio babbino caro”, which is an almost guaranteed show-stopper if you get it right. And Susanna Hurrell knocked it out of the park: a bundle of sweet-sounding knowing romantic schmaltz. Hurrell has been promising in Royal Opera productions in smaller venues: the main stage now need hold no fears for her. Another impressive début came from Paolo Fanale, who sung Lauretta's beloved Rinuccio with charm and a clear, appealing tenor.
Gallo was back to secure form in the title role of Gianni Schicchi, which doesn't pose the same demands for vocal heft. He bossed the show as he should, and led another fine ensemble piece, with Elena Zilio notable amongst the ghastly Donati family members. And, in the end, it put a smile and happiness back into our hearts.
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