Puccini’s ‘Il trittico’: Three times the opera

Opera Company of Middlebury rehearsing “Gianni Schicchi

By Jim Lowe

“Il trittico” was Giacomo Puccini’s final opera score — three operas, actually. Despite its 20th century premiere, Puccini remained true to his Romantic roots that made him the most popular Italian opera composer of all time.

“Puccini was still rooted in the style of the late 19th century, as music was starting to turn upside down,” explains Michael Sakir, who will conduct the Opera Company of Middlebury production.

“Clearly, this opera was written by the same composer as ‘Tosca’ and ‘Butterfly.’ These lyrical melodies are so similar.”

Opera Company of Middlebury will present “Il trittico” — “Il tabarro,” “Gianni Schicchi,” and “Suor Angelica” — June 2-8, fully staged, with orchestra and English supertitles, at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater.

“Il trittico (The Triptych)” premiered on Dec. 14, 1918, at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.

“Puccini himself said they must be done (as a set), and when they premiered at the Metropolitan Opera they were done that way,” Douglas Anderson, the company’s artistic director, who is stage directing, said between rehearsals last week.

“Puccini conveniently dies very soon thereafter,” Anderson said. “This is the last score he completed — ‘Turandot,’ of course, he did not complete. So he dies, and immediately people start taking it apart.”

“Il tabarro (The Cape)” is a dark tale of violence and adultery; “Suor Angelica” tells of the tragedy of a young novice in a 17th century convent; and “Gianni Schicchi,” Puccini’s only comedy, is a farce about family and greed in 1299 Florence.

“The fact that you’ve got three very different pieces on the same bill makes a ton of sense,” Anderson said. “People are always asking what unites them. Absolutely nothing — but Puccini’s genius.”

Anderson’s first challenge was selling it to his board. After all, production requires three of nearly everything: three sets, three sets of costumes, three concepts, three lighting designs, and sometimes three completely different casts.

“One of the reasons early companies didn’t want to do all three is because you’d need three leading sopranos in the building at the same time,” Anderson said, laughing. “That was considered unwise.”

Middlebury’s approach is to treat the production as an ensemble piece, mixing and matching 15 singers from around the world and eight local performers.

“They will all be in two or three,” Anderson said.

For example, Castleton soprano Suzanne Kantorski, who has starred here many times, is playing Suor Angelica and will have a tiny cameo as the young lover in “Il tabarro.”

“The boy (in ‘Suor Angelica’) is Suzanne’s son, Ellis. As an actor, that really rips her heart out,” Anderson said. “So everybody gets to play a big role, but also a small one. That took some talking. But everyone’s into that notion that, yeah, you’re a lead, but now you’re going to support someone else for a change.

“And the vibe of the company is great,” Anderson said. “Their range as performers is part of the fun of it.”

Anderson, who is known for his unorthodox staging, is playing “Il tabarro” straight, as it is a verismo, or realistic piece.

“You see a lot of Euro-trash productions which try to make it contemporary, but I thought that this one, as a verismo piece, should be treated as realistically as possible,” he said. “We’re going to play this one right down the middle, because I don’t think you should do verismo any other way. So there’s no other concept other than to honor it.”

“Schichhi,” normally the final piece, will move to the middle.

“I think we need a palate cleanser between the two dramas,” Anderson said. “I also think the ending of ‘Suor Angelica,’ the last 10 minutes, are some of the most extraordinary in opera. If you do it right, there’s nothing more to say.”

“Schicchi” is set in the time of Dante, upon whose work it is based, and that gave Anderson ideas.

“It’s about greed, it’s about incredibly wealthy people,” he said. “What can I do with it that’s going to make it engage? I started thinking about the 1980s. It was the time of greed, and being rich was OK. Do you remember what we used to wear in the 1980s? It was visually comic. And it’s in a tower on Fifth Avenue, for what that’s worth.

“They’re both grotesque periods,” Anderson said. “I think it’s going to pull together and be a laugh riot.”

“Suor Angelica,” the intimate tragedy that sold Anderson on the trilogy, is set in a convent, usually portrayed as a brutal place.

“The monitor and abbess are mean people, and they’re always punishing people,” Anderson said. “I have just the opposite view. This is a group of women who have chosen to live in the company of women. They love each other, and give each other support and solace.

“I want the audience to say, gee, I’d like to go there,” he said. “We’re doing it all in blue and white. It’ll be very ethereal and peaceful, but that changes very quickly.

“It makes it all the more interesting at the end when she decides to leave, as she does,” Anderson said.

For several years, the French conductor Emmanuel Plasson was the company’s music director. But his career has taken off, making mutually agreeable dates impossible to find.

“He might very well be back as a guest conductor when there’s time in his schedule,” Anderson said.

After a search, Anderson found Sakir and went to hear him conduct “Madame Butterfly” at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, N.Y., and he liked what he saw. (Sakir has also conducted at Opera North in Lebanon, N.H.)

“He is so busy as a conductor, he’s conducting so many places and booked so far in advance, that he doesn’t actually have a home,” Anderson said. “His home’s wherever he’s conducting.”

Sakir, too, finds “Il trittico” fascinating.

“ What’s distinctive is how different each of them are, not just in theme, but in their musical language,” he said. “With ‘Tabarro,’ it’s the most verismo it gets; it’s just sort of stark, gritty, cutthroat music on the table there for you.

“‘Suor’ is much more reverential; you can hear his background in church music and the way he grew up,” Sakir said. “And with ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ it’s all about ensemble, the realism in the pacing, the conversations that are had, the speed and velocity in the text.

“It’s rooted in natural conversation — or how relatives clamoring would have those conversations,” Sakir said.

Few have seen all three operas, and certainly not together.

“I think we’re making kind of a present to the community. This may be their only chance ever to see this piece, and that’s exciting,” Anderson said. “I love telling people stories they don’t know.”

Opera Company of Middlebury

Opera Company of Middlebury presents Giacomo Puccini’s “Il trittico (Triptych)” — “Il tabarro,” “Gianni Schicchi,” and “Suor Angelica” — June 2-8, fully staged with orchestra and English supertitles, at Town Hall Theater, 68 South Pleasant St. in Middlebury. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. June 2 (sold out), 8 and 10, and 2 p.m. June 4 (sold out). Tickets are $55-$80; call 802-382-9222, or go online to www.townhalltheater.org. For information, visit www.ocmvermont.org.