Mary Woodward Review

Puccini  Il Trittico, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

***** (5 stars)


My goodness!  I had come to the Festival Theatre tonight expecting to feel slightly detached and superior while Puccini’s three one-act operas wallowed their way through excesses of overblown emotions.  I hadn’t expected to be gripped by three dramas which increased their impact and intensity one after the other, and finished in a storm of applause which virtually raised the roof.  Scottish Opera have yet again proved how magnificently they perform anything they set their minds to.

Of course, having David McVicar as producer/ director and Stuart Stratford as musical director/ conductor means that you’ve got two amazingly talented people working together to bring life,  energy and realism into what could be seen as simple over-emotional potboilers.

Il tabarro [the cloak]’s plot is a classic love triangle which ends in heartbreak.  Giorgetta is married to Michele, who pilots his barge along the Seine.  Once they were happy, but things have changed: Giulietta still feels fondness for her husband, but is in love with the younger Luigi.  Michele is aware that something is very wrong without knowing what it is.  Of course, he finds out, and in his anger murders Luigi, covering his corpse with his cloak, once used to shelter his wife and their young child, before revealing it to his horror-struck wife.  What lifts this production out of the ordinary ‘blood and thunder’ revenge tragedy is the collection of characters among whom the drama takes place – each one is lovingly portrayed as a flawed human being doing the best they can to survive the soul-destroying rigours of their life of back-breaking toil, each one dreaming of a better life if only they could reach it.

This mostly male production was followed by the virtually all-female Suor Angelica.  Set in a convent which houses and is served by young unmarried mothers, the odour of sanctity is at times overwhelming, enforced as it is by rigid disciplinarians.  All minor transgressions result in penances of one kind or another, and any individual lively human emotions have to be suppressed and/ or punished.  The contrast between the reverence shown for the Virgin Mary and the cruel treatment of the servant girls was painful to watch: so too was the self-righteous, pharisaical attitude of Suor Angelica’s aunt, sitting in judgement on her niece for the transgression that led to her arrival at the convent seven years previously.  In this rigidly icy environment, suppressed emotions burst out when Angelica was brusquely informed that the son she bore and was forced to give up seven years ago had died two years previously.  Small wonder that she, in an ecstasy of grief, chose to take her own life: thinking she would be reunited with her son in heaven and realising too late that suicide would result in her going to hell… thankfully, in this production at least, the possibility of redemption was offered as the curtain fell.

After this immersion in two very different but equally intense tragedies, it was with the hope of some light relief that we saw the curtain rise on Gianni Schicchi – and we were rewarded with a sharply-observedand very funny social comedy in which the eponymous hero runs rings around the wealthy and snobbish Donati family gathered round the bed on which the dying Buoso breathes his last.  The audience was laughing from start to finish, and the cast – especially Roland Wood [Gianni Schicchi] – were obviously having a ball.

These three operas were designed to be performed in one evening, but these days rarely are – tonight’s performance showed what a mistake this has been.  Individually they are striking, but the cumulative effect of progressing from dark passion to ridiculous farce via a visit to the not-quite Elysian fields of a convent is greater than the sum of the three parts – Puccini knew what he was doing when he put them together.

The production is brilliant – so many minute but telling details bring each character to life as real, feeling people, not standard operatic cut-outs.  Charles Edwards’ sets are equally brilliant – the dark and brooding wharf where Michele’s barge is moored; the pale convent whose staircase soars as if to heaven, em[hasising thegulf between the rarified atmosphere in which the nuns move and the darker ‘underworld’ in which the unhappy young women grieve the loss of their children; and the extraordinary bedchamber, stuffed with books, papers, and possessions which surround Buoso Donati’s vast bed.  Costumes [Hannah Clark] and lighting [Ben Pickersgill] further contributed to each opera’s unique look and feel – I particularly loved the early 70s look of Gianni Schicchi with its ghastly crimplene dresses and trousers, hats worn indoors, and the awful diamond-patterned tank top poor downtrodden Rinuccio was wearing.

And then the music!  Three very different and very expressive scores in which the orchestra were utterly glorious, expressing  every nuance of feeling and understanding – thank you so much, Stuart Stratford, for choosing to bring us all three in one superb package.

I wish I had the space to mention everyone – every single part, however small, was excellently cast, and brought to life with that attention to detail that lifts it from the ordinary to the exceptional.  I was expecting Roland Wood [Michele, Gianni Schicchi] to be brilliant – and he was, presenting two very strongly contrasting characters in the loving and tortured husband and the roguish trickster, unwiliing to help the family who despise him but incapable of resisting the blandishments of his beloved daughter Lauretta. 

One of the joys of the triple bill was seeing people playing more than one part.  Former Emerging Artists Elgan Lŷr Thomas [Young Lover, Il Tabarro and Rinuccio, Gianni Schicchi], Sioned Gwen Davies [Abbess, Suor Angelica and La Ciesca, Gianni Schicchi] and Lea Shaw [The Sister Monitor, Suor Angelica] and current Emerging Artists Zoe Drummond [Novice, Suor Angelica] and Osian Wyn Bowen [Song Seller, Il Talbarro] all made the most of their brief appearances on stage, showing why Scottish Opera picked them.

Firm favourites with Scottish Opera audiences included Jamie MacDougall [Tinca, Il Tabarro  and Gherardo, Gianni Schicchi], Karen Cargill as the chillingly heartless Princess in Suor Angelica, and Louise Winter as the cat-loving La Frugola in Il Tabarro and Zita in Gianni Schicchi. 

Making their debuts with Scottish Opera were yet more excellent singers: I hope we see them again very soon.  Julian Close was good as Talpa [Il Tabarro] and really impressed me with his voice and personality as Simone[Gianni Schicchi].  Viktor Antipenko is yet another tenor to look out for – he made a most impressive Luigi [Il Tabarro].

The two outstanding new voices of the evening have to be those of Korean soprano Sunjoung Seo and Nigerian-American soprano Francesca Chiejina.  Very different voices and personalities, both women shone in their Scottish Opera debuts.  Sunjoung Seo’s voice soared effortlessly over the orchestra, pouring out Giorgetta’s passionate love and yearning for a settled life with her lover and the anguish of the young nun still longing for the baby son she’d been forced to give up seven years previously.  Francesca Chiejina first impressed me with her simple joy as the Young Lover in Il Tabarro, reinforced that impression with her bubbling exuberance as Sister Genoffieva in Suor Angelica and then hushed us all into silent wonder with O mio babbino caro – begging Gianni Schicchi to let her marry her beloved Rinuccio.

This was an exceptional evening – such a joy!  There’s only one more performance before the run ends: catch it if you can…  Surely this superb trio will have to see the light of day again soon – they’re much too good to be kept off the stage for long.

Scottish Opera Presents Giacomo Puccini  Il Trittico, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 25th March for tickets go to: Scottish Opera: Puccini’s Il trittico (


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