White, Jeremy


TritticoGiacomo Puccini - Il Trittico

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Lucio Gallo, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Alan Oke, Jeremy White, Ermonela Jaho, Anna Larsson, Irena Mishura, Elena Zilio, Elizabeth Sikora, Ekaterina Siurina, Francesco Demuro, Rebecca Evans, Gwynne Howell | Opus Arte

An essay in the booklet for the Blu-ray release of the Royal Opera House’s 2011 production of Puccini’s Il Trittico remarks that there’s always a temptation to try and find a common theme between the three short operas that the composer wrote to be performed together, but that essentially they were written mainly to complement each other only in so far as the contrast they provide. That still doesn’t stop producers (or those writing about the work) from trying to find connections between them. Antonio Pappano in his introduction here sees the overall theme as deception, which I like, and it’s a useful theme to keep in mind, but although there could be other commonalities found between the works - young love and dreams being stifled or weighed down by events from the past - the main uniting theme is indeed the diversity of the works. Il Trittico will make you laugh and it will make you cry - you can count on that - but, should you want to, there’s a wealth of riches to explore here in Puccini’s masterful scoring and the variety of themes that he covers.

The variety of the subjects and the manner in which they are written and played out however is more than just for the entertainment of the audience (although this is evidently the primary consideration and there is something for everyone here), but it seem to me that they are also purposely diverse in subject matter, tone and treatment in order to give Puccini as much scope as possible to stretch himself and develop into new musical areas that had been opened up in the post-Wagner world of 20th century opera. Even if the romantic melodrama of Il Tabarro or the tragic opera heroine theme of Suor Angelica are familiar areas for Puccini (the comedy of Gianni Schicchi is however another matter entirely), one can see that he is working musically outside the comfort zone of traditional Italian opera arrangements and arias, working within the constraints of the shorter form in order to concentrate on finding the purest expression of the dramatic and emotional content of the works.

Il Tabarro however is far from familiar Puccini. It is certainly a close relation to La Bohème, being set in Paris, concerned with the hopes and dreams of the lower classes looking for love and security in their lives, their romantic lives stifled by their poverty, and it even makes a few minor references to Mimi and the music of La Bohème behind the scenes, but Puccini’s mature musical perspective is quite different, darker and far heavier. Pappano makes reference to the influence of Debussy and impressionism, which is most obviously evident in the opening sounds of the canal dockyard blending into the music itself, creating a perfectly evocative atmosphere for the dark, misty setting, but the music throughout seems to express the underlying social context, the inner lives of the characters and their pasts, as much as it illustrates the dramatic events that occur in the present. There are no major arias, but the sense of their history and their social position as vagabonds, a life that is slowly grinding them down, is expressed in the singing and in the voices, the intensity of the emotion and expression of temperament as important as they actual words they sing, if not even more so. Puccini brings all that out, fully and with considerable depth, fitting it in with the dramatic developments, all within the compressed space of a one-act opera. It’s masterful.

The dark gritty realism extends through to the sets in Richard Jones’s production that recreates the dark Parisian streets at the banks of the Seine as effectively as Puccini’s score. The excellent lighting is particularly instrumental in establishing the mood. The cast too are terrific, able to spark life into these characters and reveal them in all their humanity. Eva-Maria Westbroek in particular is very strong as Giorgetta, with her Wagnerian range that still has a lovely lyricism. Gallo has the reputation of mugging characters, but he’s strong here as the dark and intense Michele. He doesn’t really have the depth of voice or the acting quality to reveal any unexpected qualities, but he sings the role quite well. There are no concerns at all with Aleksandrs Antonenko, who sings powerfully and brings out that extra dimension that Puccini scores in his revealing duet with Westbroek’s Giorgetta. If Il Tabarro is never thought of as the strongest section of Il Trittico, this production presents it as well as it can be done, Pappano in particular directing the orchestra of the Royal Opera House magnificently through the strains and the sweep of Puccini’s score.

If Il Tabarro has a kind of spiritual connection with La Bohème, the fatal tragedy of the romantic heroine of Suor Angelica is aligned closely with the circumstances and the fate of Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. If there are differences in the plot, and particularly in the cultural background and the individual circumstances of the central figures, at heart however the emotions and what engenders them is similar, and Puccini couches those female sentiments in much the same kind of musical language. There is however considerable maturity in the through composition of the opera and in Puccini’s attempt here not so much to accompany the action as much as describe the otherworldly aspects that drive it. Aware of the wide range of opportunities this offers - even in a short work of this length - Puccini doesn’t focus solely on the complications of Sister Angelica’s situation, but also delves into the inner lives, the playfulness, devotion, contemplation and secret desires of the other nuns, their conflict between earthly being and a search for heavenly grace all contributing to the fullness of the character study of Angelica.

Forced into a convent, having given birth to an illegitimate child that would bring shame to the noble family name that she belongs to, living in hope for some kind of news from the family that has disowned her, the developments when combined with a religious experience could certainly tip the work over into high melodrama, particularly when scored with such feeling by Puccini. I’m sure there are many who feel that this is indeed the case with Suor Angelica, but it’s clear that Puccini is seeking to express a deeper, more complex view of extreme very specific female emotions where a sense of motherhood has been denied, caught up in religious devotion and monastic discipline. That balance also needs to be maintained in the stage presentation, particularly the handling of the dramatic conclusion, and Richard Jones managed to bring out that inner world described in the music well, with subtle but telling touches. More important than anything else however is the performance of Suor Angelica herself, and Ermonela Jaho not only sings it exceptionally well, but she is completely involved in a role that demands acting of concentrated intensity.

Buoso Donati has just died, his family and loved ones surrounding him, but in the third part of Puccini’s Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, this is not the usual tragic opera deathbed scene, and if there are any tears shed by the assembled mourners it’s on account of their being disinherited in the old man’s will, while it’s more likely to be tears of laughter on the part of the audience (and that’s no exaggeration). The comic opera is certainly not a style you would associate with Puccini, but his treatment of the humour in Gianni Schicchi is nothing short of brilliant. Closer to Verdi’s Falstaff than say Donizetti’s clever but broader slapstick, there’s no heavy comic underscoring here (whatever that might entail, I’m not sure), but rather an almost furtive, subtle, insidious expression of the nature this mixed bag of greedy, grasping, backstabbing, moneygrubbers in all their scheming self-importance. It’s dazzling to hear how a composer of Puccini’s experience and maturity handles himself in this unfamiliar register, from the false sobs scored into the opening notes, through the knowing self-parody of heartfelt (yet still justly famous) arias that don’t express ‘Addio del passato’ as much as ‘Addio to the money’, to the frantic jostling for positions of influence of this motley mob and their eventual well-deserved comeuppance.

Richard Jones’s setting for the Royal Opera House production again fits quite admirably, finding its own sense of style without having to adhere to the period. Somehow the slick sixties suits and garish dresses express the tasteless vulgarity of the rich Donati family and their brood, as does the tacky flowered wallpaper Buoso’s over-sized bedroom. There’s no sharp spiv suit either for the scheming lawyer Gianni Schicchi, but a suitably seedy quality nonetheless to his open-shirted swagger, looking as if he’s just been dragged away from a different kind of bar than the one expected for his profession, differentiating his social class from the pretensions of the Donati family. It’s spot-on characterisation, wonderfully played and sung by the cast - Lucio Gallo switching register wonderfully from the very different role of Michele in Il Tabarro. As Antonio Pappano notes however in the introduction, the comedy in Gianni Schicchi relies greatly on the timing, and while this production gets those laughs, when compared to the English Touring Opera’s recent hilarious production that is still fresh in my mind, Jones’s stage direction doesn’t always make the most of the potential that Puccini’s score and the witty situations of the work present.

It’s Antonio Pappano’s contribution to the production as a whole however that proves to be the critical factor in its overall resounding success. All this richness and diversity, the sense of fun and drama, along with the serious musicological insight and consideration of the deeper qualities of the work is borne out in Pappano’s conducting of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who give a mesmerising performance. With excellent casting and singing, and an appropriate staging, you really couldn’t ask for more.

Opus Arte however also package the set extremely well. In addition to the impeccable technical presentation on Blu-ray, with a crystal clear High Definition transfer and outstanding HD sound mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that reproduce the music and the singing exceptionally well, each of the three hour-long operas are presented separately and given their own optional introduction that briefly sets out the premise and the treatment. An additional Extra Feature follows Lucio Gallo through make-up, warm-up and last-minute preparations with the conductor for his two roles as Michele and Gianni Schicchi. The full-HD Blu-ray is region-free, dual layer BD50, with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.

ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Jonathan Kent, Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel, Lukas Jakobski, Jeremy White, Hubert Francis, Zhengzhong Zhou, William Payne, John Morrisey | Opus Arte, BBC2

I recently reviewed a production of Tosca on Blu-ray recorded at the Arena di Verona and summed it up by saying “This is not the best Tosca you’ll see by a long shot, but it’s a good performance nonetheless.” As if to prove the point, just a few weeks later comes a version of Tosca recorded at the Royal Opera House earlier this year that, if not the best Tosca you’ll ever see (though it could make claims to be up there among the best) you could at least safely say that it is certainly among the best you will hear being produced anywhere in the world at the moment.

In terms of concept, design and staging, there is nothing particularly innovative, imaginative, original or even too exciting about Jonathan Kent’s direction for this Royal Opera House production, which dates back to 2006. It adheres to the period locations and action as they are laid out in the original libretto, each of the three acts recognisably taking place in specific locations in Rome - Act 1 in the church of Sant’ Andrea, Act 2 in the Palazzo Farnese, Act 3 on top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo - actual locations that have been used in the past for filmed versions of Puccini’s opera. If there’s little that is striking about the stage designs, which are functional at best, Kent stages the dramatic action within them to the full extent of the verismo realism that the opera calls out for. All those major moments within each of the three acts - the Te Deum at the end of Act 1, the death of Scarpia in Act 2, and the powerful climax of Act 3 - are designed to achieve maximum impact. Everything is as you would expect it, there’s nothing clever attempted, and really nothing needs to be done with this particular opera. If it’s staged according to the indications of the libretto, if the dramatic action simply allows the score to dictate the pace and drive of the developments and the emotional pitch, and if it’s sung well, you’re more than half-way there with Tosca.

Tosca

What distinguishes a good traditional production of Tosca from many others, including the aforementioned Arena di Verona production, and what makes this Royal Opera House production something special, is the casting and the ability of those performers to bring something of their own unique character and ability to the work. It’s hard to imagine a more stellar contemporary cast in the three principal roles than the one assembled here. As Floria Tosca, Angela Gheorghiu is the ultimate diva playing a diva - a fact that she acknowledges and clearly relishes. Those characteristics can often be pushed a little too far with this particular singer, who often plays the diva whether it’s called for or not, but here at least it’s appropriate and Gheorghiu is totally convincing. It’s more than just good casting of course, since, as ever, Gheorghiu sings superbly. And not just from a technical viewpoint - which is hard to fault - but it’s also an impassioned performance that is perfectly judged with complete understanding of her character and fits in well with the overall tone of the whole production. Consummately professional then - you would expect no less - but Gheorghiu is also genuinely impressive on every level.

Jonas Kaufmann is another performer who continues to impress, slipping effortlessly into whatever role he plays with a great deal of personality, but more than impress, the manner in which he brings that extraordinary voice to bear on such familiar roles is absolutely astonishing and quite unlike any previous account you might have heard of that role, so far is it from a typical tenor voice. His recent version of Massanet’s Werther for Vienna and the Paris Opéra, for example, couldn’t have been more different than that of Rolando Villazon at Covent Garden in one of his signature roles, and likewise, Kaufmann’s powerfully controlled, dark near-baritone boom makes his Cavaradossi here totally unlike Marcelo Alvarez or indeed any how any other classic tenor would perform the role. There is a fear that with such a powerful voice he could end up bellowing the role, particularly as there is ample opportunity for it, but Kaufmann retains complete control over the voice and the character, dropping it to quieter phrasing where it is required. I’m not totally convinced by the heroic nature of his performance here, which doesn’t let in a great deal of humanity, but I suppose that’s how Puccini mainly scores the role.

Tosca

Bryn Terfel as Scarpia likewise has to make the most of how his role is scored and try to strike a balance between a human and a caricature. He also sings wonderfully and certainly looks the part with enough physical presence and steel in his vocal delivery to make the evil pronouncements of the Chief of Police, heavily underscored as they are by Puccini, more than menacing enough, so the additional grimaces and sneers perhaps aren’t all that necessary. The singing performances are all marvellous then, making the most of the roles and trying to find some balance and level of humanity in the characters - which isn’t always easy in this opera - but best of all is how well they work together. On a vocal level the singing is perfectly complementary and there appears to be no struggle for dominance on the acting side either, each of them existing within their own characters but working with each other in a dramatically convincing manner. It makes it very easy then for the viewer to become wrapped up in the melodramatic events that occur over the 24 hour period of the story.

That’s as much to do with the staging however, so while you can criticise Jonathan Kent’s lack of imagination in the production design and the stage direction, it does at least work effectively on a dramatic level. Part of the reason for this is the decision not to downplay the opera’s controversial depictions of violence. Make no mistake, it’s all there in the libretto, from the extended torture scene through to the attempted rape, murder and executions, but some directors might choose to underplay these elements, particularly to mitigate against Puccini’s full-blooded score. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and there’s certainly no right or wrong way to do it. If you are aiming for realism in the set designs and you have singers who are also good actors, then it makes sense to let them fully enter into the roles and the cast here manage to do that without too much operatic grimacing or mannerisms. Matched with a perfectly judged performance of the Royal Opera House orchestra under Antonio Pappano (that has all the dynamism that is lacking in the aforementioned Verona production), the result is an impressive, involving and, yes, near perfect account of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” as you could expect to see done anywhere in the world today.

VepresGiuseppe Verdi - Les Vêpres Siciliennes

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2010 | Paolo Carignani, Christof Loy, Barbera Haveman, Burkhard Fritz, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Balint Szabo, Jeremy White, Christophe Fel, Lívia Ághová, Fabrice Farina, Hubert Francis, Roger Smeets, Rudi de Vries | Opus Arte

In the behind-the-scenes featurette on the BD for this opera, Frank, one of the nearly 100 strong chorus of the Nederlandse Opera, says that he feels like he is not just one of the crowd in this production, he’s part of history. And in a way, there is definitely something momentous about Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes (1855). It’s not just the fact that it’s Verdi in full-blown Grand Opéra mode, in French moreover, or that it’s based around an historical event that has contemporary and political significance for the revolutionary-minded composer himself – but it’s also a lesser-known Verdi opera, very rarely performed or recorded, even more rarely in its full French version complete with a half-hour ballet in the middle. The Dutch production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes in Amsterdam is certainly an historic occasion then, and what a fascinating, thrilling and momentous event it turns out to be.

The original historical events referred to in the opera date back to 1282, when the Sicilian people rose up against the cruel French occupying forces after one outrage too many committed against the ordinary citizens. You would imagine that Verdi was less interested in the historical Vespri Siciliani than he was about the revolution in Italy in his own time, and stage director Christof Loy likewise isn’t concerned about setting this production of the opera to any specific historical time period. Nominally however, it’s set in the 1960s (the dates of birth of the young protagonists are given as the early 1940s), which would seem to draw a parallel with events in French-occupied Algeria, but there is nothing culturally specific that makes any reference to this. Loy’s direction then is by no means the fiasco that has been suggested elsewhere. The director’s touches are distinctive certainly, and not for everyone, but taking the opera out of its natural time period – which would have no meaning or significance for a modern audience anyway and arouse none of the passions Verdi undoubtedly was aiming for – Loy manages nonetheless not only to do great service to the opera and even help cover over some of its flaws.

The staging has much of the same look as Loy’s Salzburg production of Handel’s Theodora, and it has a very loose thematic connection in it being about citizens standing up to the abuse of a foreign power. Similarly, the sets are kept minimal, with rarely anything more than a few chairs scattered around the stage, creating a sense of timelessness that is reflected in the costumes. The French, like the Romans in Theodora, for the most part wear formal dinner jackets, the Sicilians casual jeans and shirts, with only Hélène – the Duchess – wearing a man’s suit and tie. The political and social distinctions are therefore much more meaningful to a modern audience than any period costumes. Props and effects are rarely used, but when they are (bottles and glasses, slides and projections) they are employed to good effect and for maximum impact. The main part of the Loy’s work however is in his directing of the singers, their movements, placement and their interaction, and it’s hard to see him putting a foot wrong anywhere in this respect, as the full impact of the complex relations between the characters, their backgrounds and motivations all come through.

Vepres

Where the plot and the libretto are less convincing, Verdi music fills in the gaps and Loy steps back and lets it speak for itself (the otherwise static Act IV for example is powerful simply through a magnificent set of duets, trio and quartet). In the places where even Verdi’s judgement of the occasion is questionable – the start of Act V for example, Loy steps in and manages to make something more meaningful out of it. The director chooses the Four Seasons ballet in Act III to be the thematic centrepoint of his interpretation (controversially it would seem), giving motivation to Henri’s later actions that are otherwise difficult to reconcile, the revelations about his own origins and his father leading him to idealise or just imagine how things might have been different. This illusory ideal leads him to believe that his marriage to Hélène at the start of Act V (the same fantasy home setting of the ballet is used here) – otherwise an improbably joyous occasion considering the circumstances – could bring a true peaceful union between France and Sicily. It’s a thoughtful interpretation by a director who clearly cares enough to play to the opera’s strengths and mitigate its weaknesses. At the very least, it’s certainly preferable to simply cutting the ballet, as would be more common (if the opera were indeed more commonly performed), and letting it limp by with its inherent flaws.

Although there are some unfamiliar elements, the opera itself is recognisably and whole-heartedly Verdi, with romantic tragedy, dire threats of revenge and rousing revolutionary sentiments. Musically, Les Vêpres Siciliennes doesn’t always feel like the Verdi we know, but, like Don Carlo (a much better opera admittedly), there’s something fascinating and appropriately dramatic about having the Verdi experience filtered through the French Grand Opéra idiom, with its echoes of Un Ballo in Maschera and even Rigoletto and La Traviata here, with its rousing choruses and its grand Overture (placed strangely between Acts I and II here, but no less effectively), but with unexpected delicacy and with musical arrangements that I’ve never heard from Verdi before, such as in the wonderful ballet music. The orchestra and the chorus, under Paolo Carignani, are outstanding in their delivery, the opera approached with a real Verdian sweep.

The singing – even though there are some difficult passages and coloratura to navigate right at the end of a long opera – is for the most part beyond reproach. Barbera Haveman is a great presence, the charismatic figure that Hélène needs to be, her singing strong and heartfelt throughout. Burkhard Fritz is a lovely lyrical tenor who manages to make the difficult nature of Henri’s plight sympathetic. Balint Szabo’s bass makes for a grave, dignified, yet compelling revolutionary voice as Procida. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester is fine, but the weakest of the principals, not really cutting a strong enough figure as Montfort, and his singing isn’t as clear and resonant as the others. Les Vêpres Siciliennes isn’t great Verdi by any means, but it’s a side to Verdi that we rarely see in his most popular works, and it’s thrilling for that alone. We can be grateful to the Nederlandse Opera for bring the full opera in its full original form (with only one slight tweak of the placement of the Overture), but also to have a director like Christof Loy, who clearly cares enough to put the additional effort into making the opera relevant and meaningful.

The quality of the Blu-ray release from Opus Arte is good, if not exceptional. The large mostly dark stage and stark lighting makes it difficult to get an entirely satisfactory exposure level, but the image is relatively clear, the opera well-filmed and there are no noticeable defects. There’s not much to choose between the LPCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 audio mixes. The surround track is firmly to the front and centre, with little but ambience in the rear speakers. The 2-channel mix, by the same token eliminates some of the reverb. Otherwise, both tracks are more than adequate for a live recording, achieving a good balance between singing and the orchestra. The half-hour Introduction to the opera is an entertaining and informative look mainly behind the scenes at the rehearsals and presentation of the opera.