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At the height of his fame in 1918, Giacomo Puccini made an ambitious creative leap. He composed three one-act operas to be performed together, each one radically different from the others.
They are linked only by the fact that each opera deals with the concealment of a death. Suor Angelica is mystical and religious; Gianni Schicchi is a farcical comedy; while Il Tabarro (The Cloak) is a melodrama.
Nowadays the three are rarely staged together because of (a) the high cost of three casts and (b) the length of the evening. Also some critics agree with Samuel Chotzinoff's verdict in the New York World, back in the day: “Only Gianni Schicchi appears to have sufficient vitality to interest the Metropolitan customers. Suor Angelica and Il Tabarro [will inhabit] whatever bourne is set aside for the eternal reception of music that is stillborn.”
In this trittico, Puccini displayed a mastery of orchestral instrumentation that’s far above his La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. But it was not a critical or commercial success, and Puccini reluctantly agreed to have its components split apart. In subsequent years, the most neglected of the threesome has been Il Tabarro, and that’s what provides the most interest in this new production from the Academy of Vocal Arts.
Il Tabarro is dark and threatening, a melodrama of marital sleaze reminiscent of 1940s film noir and of Jean Renoir’s moody French movies. Puccini described Il Tabarro as "Grand Guignol," after the Paris puppet theater that featured graphic horror. The setting is a barge on the Seine in Paris. The lapping waters are reflected in the orchestra, which includes chromatic chords reminiscent of Claude Debussy, who died nine months before this opera’s premiere.
A love triangle involves Michele, a middle-aged barge owner and captain; his much-younger wife Giorgetta; and her even-younger lover, Luigi, who is one of her husband’s stevedores. Michele strangles Luigi and envelopes his body in his cloak, then opens it to reveal the dead body to Giorgetta.
Tabarro has had difficulty in finding fans. None of its characters is noble or appealing; the soprano is a slut, the tenor is an opportunist, and the baritone is a pathetic man reduced to begging his wife for affection. Notwithstanding the haunting instrumental music, the vocal lines often cut against the orchestral tide: While orchestra creates color, the voices project blackness.
Yet this production rose to passionate transcendence, thanks to gripping staging by the famed Tito Capobianco, an orchestra that shone under the baton of Christofer Macatsoris, and singing on an excitingly high level. Capobianco also added some unexpected (and unwritten) action to the opera’s ending that made perfect sense.
Jared Bybee searing intensity as the older man driven to murder made us empathize with his loveless existence. Vanessa Vasquez made an intense Giorgetta and Marco Cammarota as Luigi was dark, handsome and dangerous, with a gleaming voice.
Sympathy for a peasant
Gianni Schicchi, performed after the intermission, presents a family of hypocrites duped out of their inheritance by a rogue. The bubbly music includes a nice tenor aria and the lovely “O mio babbino caro," one of the most famous of all soprano tunes.
The libretto is based on an incident in Dante's Divine Comedy, in which Schicchi is condemned to hell for impersonating the deceased Buoso Donati and drawing up a new will favorable to Schicchi. Dante's wife actually belonged to the Donati family, and the poet despised peasants like Schicchi. But Puccini transformed Schicchi into a sympathetic character, and audiences root for him to succeed in his trickery against the greedy Donatis.
Capobianco staged this comedy with ingenious exposure of the family’s scheming. Conductor Richard Raub and the orchestra accentuated the moments when clashing chords revealed dissonant modernity. In fact, some rhythmic moments in Schicchi parallel what the young Igor Stravinsky was writing around the same time.
Nathan Milholin, the baritone who rehearsed as Schicchi, was too ill to sing Saturday’s performance, so he acted the part while Ethan Simpson, a first-year AVA resident artist, richly sang the music from the orchestra pit. Karen Barraza sang the sweet-voiced lead soprano and Alasdair Kent sang fervently as her fiancé. Allegra De Vita made a superb scheming niece Zita.
Director Capobianco made a solo appearance at the end of Schicchi, speaking lines normally assigned to the title character. It’s worth noting that Capobianco started his career in his native Argentina as a baritone in 1949. One of Capobianco’s teachers had created the role of Gianni Schicchi for Puccini — providing quite an impressive legacy.
What, When, Where
Il Tabarro (The Cloak) and Gianni Schicchi. By Giacomo Puccini; directed by Tito Capobianco directs; Christopher Macatsoris and Richard Raub, conductors. conduct the AVA Opera. Academy of Vocal Arts production through April 30, 2016 at Helen Corning Warden Theater, 1930 Spruce St.; May 3, 2016 at Centennial Hall, The Haverford School, Haverford, Pa.; May 14, 2016 at Central Bucks South High School, Warrington, Pa. www.avaopera.org.
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