In a threesome, there’s aways one who feels a bit upstaged

So the Covent Garden season has been launched, and in quite high style with an evening of Puccini’s Il Trittico, two-thirds of which is new.  And, in performance terms, it was the new pieces that triumphed, the revival seeming a little worn by comparison.

Which is not to say that the pieces themselves sit in the same rank order.  Il Tabarro is gloomy and melodramatic, and is starting to slightly strain its material by the time its denouement arrives.  Suor Angelica is sentimental to a worrying degree (more Sound of Music than Dialogues des Carmelites in its treatment of nuns), even if, in this production, it was the most effective in conveying its story.  Gianni Schicchi, taken on its own merits is the most completely satisfying and consistent hour.  If Tabarro is Puccini in Tosca-mode, Suor Angelica finds him in Butterfly-style.  Schicchi is harder to find parallel for.

Il Tabarro‘s gloom was conveyed by what was, I guess, once a seedy sort of canal-side; although, it appears by now to have been the subject of some regeneration, neatly maintained by the local Council with bollards to prevent people falling in and well-scrubbed paths from which to admire the Georgian façades of the canal-facing buildings.  Eva-Maria Westbroek was the heroine, trapped in the wrong relationship, and who uses the opera’s hour to finally make a decision to leave, only to be foiled by her husband’s murderous frustration.  The high melodrama of the ending was welcome after a spell when it seems to lose its tension.  Richard Jones and his team provided plenty of extraneous detail – workers in the houses, prostitutes hovering, beefy sailors prowling, that sort of thing – but the focus on the main action was rarely lost.  Westbroek was on form, but the role didn’t really provide much with which to excel.  Lucio Gallo was a little muted in character as the cuckolded husband.  As her lover, Luigi, Aleksandrs Antonenko was perhaps the most striking performance, with a juicy, strong, ringing voice and definite stage presence.

The high point was Suor Angelica for sure.  Not having encountered it (or, indeed Il Tabarro) before, it was a pleasure to make its acquaintance, particularly in the intelligent, detail-filled production by Jones et al.  The straightforward convent was turned into an orphanage or children’s hospital, which shone a striking light on Angelica’s past and predicament and allowed for a shattering – and bleak – conclusion that distanced itself from the supernaturally-delivered redemption of the libretto.  And most welcome that was too, like a dash of bitters in an otherwise too sweet cocktail.  Ermonela Jaho was outstanding in an assignment that must have been difficult given everyone’s talk of how disappointing it was that Anja Harteros had cancelled.  Initially tentative, and a little over-reliant on glances to the conductor, she became stronger and stronger as the hour passed.  Her confrontation with the tremendously gothic Princess of Anna Larsson was gripping, and her careful preparation of the pills for her suicide built unerringly to the act itself and its consequences.  Her voice was bright, clear and even, and her Senza Mamma was very affecting.  She seemed quite genuinely moved by her well-deserved ovations.

The Jones production of Gianni Schicchi is well-known in these parts, having been previously paired with Ravel’s comedy L’Heure Espagnole.  Back in its rightful place in Puccini’s triptych, it sits slightly uneasily, the sharp, dark comedy not quite providing the right foil to the heavy tragedies that precede it.  That might also have been because, as I mentioned earlier, this wasn’t its most convincing outing.  Lucio Gallo was spry, and very slightly camp, as Schicchi – much less of an anchor weight for the action than Thomas Allen or Bryn Terfel had been.  There was nothing out of place in Ekaterina Siurina’s O mio babbino caro, but it seemed to prioritise an efficient integration into the surrounding action, rather than a moment of outstanding, heartstopping beauty.  Francesco Demuro sang Firenze è come un albero fiorito attractively, but couldn’t quite match his intention with the resources available.  Elena Zilio’s Zita seems to get bigger of character and more rasping on each outing: marvellous.  Marie McLaughlin seems to have the sassy Italian woman’s swagger down to a fine art.  The general ensemble feel was nicely maintained, although perhaps there was lacking just that bit of confidence in the ensemble that gives the comedy its breathing-space.  Perhaps that contributes to the feeling that it didn’t quite reach the heights of earlier runs.

Pappano worked his magic on all three scores, perhaps a little too driven in the comedy, but giving a big, fruity weight to the orchestral melodrama of the tragic works.  The orchestra sounded on fine form, and raring to go for the season ahead.  Bring it on!

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