Director Jack O’Brien and his creative crew of Broadway vets make their Met debuts with “Il Trittico” — showing the classical music world exactly how opera should be staged. Puccini’s 1918 triptych of one-act operas is all about death, whether it be by murder (“Il Tabarro”), suicide (“Suor Angelica”) or old age (“Gianni Schicchi”), with only consumption conspicuously absent from the shortlist of opera’s favorite ways to off a character. Nothing else cements the three works except Puccini’s romantic melodic invention and, in this case, O’Brien’s superlative, detailed production. Under his carefully nuanced direction, one can almost believe that opera singers should be seen as well as heard.
Death is never simple, and that’s the way O’Brien has his cast play it against James Levine’s robust reading of Puccini.
In “Il Tabarro,” Giorgetta (Maria Guleghina) misses her dead child more than she needs her lover Luigi (Salvatore Licitra); and her husband Michele (Frederick Burchinal) loves Giorgetta more than he wants to kill Luigi.
For the title character in “Suor Angelica” (Barbara Frittoli), the isolation from her family and fellow nuns momentarily and tragically blinds her to the mortal sin of suicide after she learns of her illegitimate child’s death.
And in the eponymously titled final piece, the wily Gianni Schicchi (Alessandro Corbelli) makes full use of a family’s avarice when he impersonates a corpse in order to rewrite a will to the full advantage of his own daughter, Lauretta (Olga Mykytenko), and her fiance, Rinuccio (Massimo Giordano).
In O’Brien’s capable hands, death gets downright messy, not to mention smelly in the comic “Gianni Schicchi.” Who else but the director of “Hairspray” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” would punctuate Puccini’s lush music with the flushing of a toilet? Yes, O’Brien does a little bit of updating in this third opera, abandoning the renaissance for a 1959 setting that gives costume designer Jess Goldstein full license to go Fellini on us with poof skirts and pink feathered hats. O’Brien’s ensemble functions as a precision comedy machine, and Corbelli’s pint-sized, whacked-out Schicchi brings to mind a Florentine Claude Rains.
The Grand Guignol murder of Luigi doesn’t quite spark the intended chills in “Il Tabarro,” what with Burchinal stepping in at the last minute for an indisposed Juan Pons in the role of Michele.
Nevertheless, Guleghina and Licitra emerge as the vocal standouts of the evening, giving a lesson in what has been oft-reported as a dead art: authentic verismo singing. Guleghina is everything Anna Magnani would have been if she were a singer. And it’s time to stop carping that Licitra is not the next Placido Domingo. He delivers as much passion, legato and real Italianate ping at the top as the great Spanish tenor ever did in this role.
On the vocal front, Stephanie Blythe also should be singled out for her portrayal of three supporting roles. Here’s a force-of-nature voice that, in its ability to pierce both body and soul, can best be described as a vocal laser.
“Suor Angelica” historically has been considered the weakest of the three operas, but in recent years the maudlin, tune-filled story has emerged as a major guilty pleasure. In essence, it’s the MGM score Puccini never lived to write. Also, the opera invariably provides the evening’s biggest ovation due to its soprano showcase of an immensely vulnerable title character. (Truth be told, most opera aficionados love singing much more than they do music.)
Like most Sister Angelicas, Frittoli scores big with the audience, but to these ears she offers an extremely cautious “Senza mamma.” The moments of hysteria and hallucination that follow this aria of remorse embody the only real mad scene Puccini ever wrote, and Frittoli never really heats up or lets go until that aforementioned dead child of hers materializes at the church door.
What her performance lacks in suspense, O’Brien and his lighting team of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer provide. Douglas W. Schmidt’s convent is basically the “Doubt” set only much grander, and Fisher and Eisenhauer make it an eerie place indeed with heavy purple air ready to explode with miracles.
Better yet, O’Brien turns the nuns against poor Angelica: When she finally goes to them for comfort, they disappear, and when Angelica feels her soul is lost, those same nuns start walking toward her en masse in a creepy lock-step. She’s better off rid of this crowd.
From the warehouse Seine River setting in “Il Tabarro” to the double-tier palazzo in “Gianni Schicchi,” Schmidt’s sets impress, but perhaps a little too much. “Il Trittico” is basically an intimate affair, and even the grand passion of facing death sometimes gets swamped in these massive visuals.