It sometimes seems that the popularity of Puccini’s big four operas has all but doomed his lesser-known works to obscurity. The major opera companies can pack houses with endless revivals of “Boheme,” “Butterfly,” “Tosca” and “Turandot,” and usually turn to other composers for more offbeat fare. It’s been more than 30 years since City Opera has presented Puccini’s operatic omnibus “Trittico,” for instance. The company’s superb new production, directed by James Robinson, is thus a bittersweet occasion: Nice to see you again, and see you in 30 years!
The first item on the bill, “Il Tabarro” (The Cloak), is the only one of the evening’s three operas to lack a “greatest hits” aria (“Suor Angelica” has the plaintive “Senza mamma,” and “Gianni Schicchi” the syrupy “O mio babbino caro”), but it is the most dramatically powerful of the trio.
This is Puccini in real verismo mode, supplying moody and atmospheric music to Giuseppe Adami’s concise, moving libretto about a barge owner and his adulterous wife. Christopher Akerlind’s expert lighting helped shape the evolution of the drama from languor and anomie to tragedy, as golden evening light turned stark and shadowy.
Baritone Mark Delavan gave a vocally powerful, finely shaded performance as the cuckolded Michele, whose anguished love for his straying wife Giorgetta ends in violence. The characters may seem like stock opera items, but Adami’s libretto portrays them sensitively, exploring the pain, anger and confusion that follows when love mysteriously evaporates from a relationship.
Delavan’s fine acting rather outclassed the more stereotypical posturing of his Giorgetta, Fabiana Bravo, but the overall impact of the tale was scarcely muted. Tenor Carl Tanner gave a vocally robust performance as Giorgetta’s lover Luigi.
“Suor Angelica” was scrubbed free of some of its spiritual floridity thanks to the canny decision to set all three operas in the 1950s. Instead of a standard convent, Robinson set the opera in a children’s hospital run by nuns, rendered with clean clinical grace by set designer Allen Moyer.
Maria Kanyova, a soprano with a fine, clear tone, gave a performance of real pathos and emotional intensity in the title role of a young nun driven to suicidal despair when she learns the son she was forced to abandon has died.
Mezzo Ursula Ferri was solid as the Principessa who coolly retails the unhappy news. The children’s hospital setting also provided for an extraordinarily haunting final image that served the music and the opera perfectly, allowing a poetic but realistic interpretation of the dying Angelica’s vision of her son’s spirit.
The frothy comedy “Gianni Schicchi” arrives like a big bowl of tiramisu after the heavy dramatics of the first two operas. Played here in Moyer’s spectacular black and white set, depicting a swanky Florence apartment as a big op-art box, Robinson’s production paid affectionate homage to Fellini’s “La dolce vita,” with Bruno Schwengl’s chic period costumes adding to the fun.
Delavan returned with an appealingly restrained but nonetheless crisply comic performance as the wily Schicchi, who handily outwits a handful of grasping relatives to snare for himself the crown jewels of a dying miser’s fortune.
Under George Manahan’s polished conducting, the orchestra deftly switched gears from the roiling angst of “Tabarro” to the borderline bombast of “Angelica” to the bubbly rhythms of Puccini’s lone comic opera.