SFOpera - A Cloak of Happiness and Sorrow: Puccini’s Glorious Triptych

A Cloak of Happiness and Sorrow: Puccini’s Glorious Triptych

First published in the 2009 September/October issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine.

Critics have often carped at Giacomo Puccini’s skill as a composer. Il Trittico, his 1918 triptych of operas, is an ingenious riposte to his detractors. Tragedy, melodrama, and ribald (black) humor are presented across three entirely separate works. Over three hours of music, we see and hear violence, lust, sentimentality, personal conviction, greed, and one-upmanship. But for many the operas are perplexing: Why have three? Why present themtogether in the same evening?

Originally, Puccini conceived the opera as a diptych, with only a tragedy (Il Tabarro) and a comedy (what would become Gianni Schicchi) forming a negative impression of each other across the interval. But the highly experienced composer found that contrast too obvious and therefore decided upon Suor Angelica, creating a mystical and ambiguous heart to the triptych (though it was the first to suffer the chop when the work was revived). Peopled by saints and sinners, Il Trittico is at the apex of Puccini’s output, with his lyrical gift underlining the stories of these characters.

For those familiar with Puccini’s great lyrical tragedies, Il Tabarro comes as no surprise. Indeed, so clear was the link between Il Tabarro and the composer’s previous Parisian opera La Bohème that he quotes from his earlier masterpiece (a trick suggested by his librettist Giuseppe Adami). However, unlike the tearinducing vignettes of Murger’s 1849 play La Vie de Bohème, giving a textbook illustration of an artistic and liberal existence, La Houppelande, the play on which Il Tabarro is based, is much cruder. Puccini was instantly attracted to the marked difference between the characters’ life on the barge on the Seine and Giorgetta’s romantic ambition:

This life-style of the boatmen and stevedores dragging out their wretched existence in the traffic of the river, resigned to their lot, is in complete contrast to the longing that throbs in Giorgetta’s breast—a yearning for dry land, regret for the noisy clamor of the suburbs, for the lights of Paris. Love snatched at for the odd quarter of an hour is not enough for her. Her dream is to escape, to tread the pavements, to leave the cabin on the water where her child died.

Adami, who had been Puccini’s librettist for La Rondine, responded with a libretto alarmingly quickly. His versified text was perhapsmore refined than what Puccini was looking for. Where Il Tabarro would differ entirely from La Bohème (and indeed Puccini’s previous collaboration with Adami) was in the sweep of its score. Moving away from the traditional Italianate “number opera” approach, with arias and choruses separated out (most notable, perhaps, in the operettainfused La Rondine, which preceded Il Trittico), Puccini wrote a seamless underscore for this new Parisian drama. The rise and fall of the Seine (soundingmore like the swell of Debussy’s LaMer) portends a darker, more troubled voyage. The sounds of a car horn, sirens and the shouts of the other works on the river tell us that we are in a brutal contemporary world. Puccini gestures at dance rhythms (though undermined by nagging discords), but it is a gloomy pizzicato motif in the strings that most underlines the tragedy which is to unfold. Taking up the triple timemeter of the waltzes that Giorgetta hears far off (that “noisy clamour of the suburbs”), the motif’s bleak thud makes us realize that her dream of escape is futile. It is, of course, this motif that Puccini plays again at the tragic close of the opera. Taking his cue from Verdi, who recalls the Duke’s lusty theme as Rigoletto discovers his dying daughter in the sack, Puccini presents the morbid waltz as Giorgetta sings “Tutti quanti portiamo un tabbaro che asconde qualche volta una gioia, qualche volta un dolore” (“We all carry a cloak that conceals sometimes happiness, sometimes sorrow”). Puccini has musically sealed Giorgetta’s fate right from the beginning and her romantic ambition (typified in the “far off” sounds and by Luigi’s lifeless body) is over. As quickly as this punchy postcard of an opera has begun, Puccini has ended it.

Following this grim, modern disaster, Puccini wanted to write an extreme antidote. Yet despite the jovial fripperies of La Bohème, the toddling Sacristan in Tosca, or the politically incorrect mockery of the Japanese characters in Madama Butterfly, Puccini was no obvious comic. However, it was an ambition of his to pay homage to his bel canto predecessors who gave the operatic repertoire the gift of Italian comedy. Likewise, Verdi, although as disposed to tragedy as Puccini, nevertheless left behind Falstaff, that great humorous apotheosis to nineteenth-century Italian opera. Despite the exemplars, it was difficult to find the text that would inspire Puccini’s nascent comic talent. Having researched possibilities far and wide, including George Bernard Shaw, it was the librettist Giovacchino Forzano (who also provided the text for Suor Angelica) who suggested a few lines from Dante’s Inferno. Forzano’s resulting opera is a brilliant mix of medieval moral and contemporary comedy. Puccini, however, wasn’t sure and, as ever with his eye on the audience, doubted that the general public would get Gianni Schicchi.

Whatever his doubts, the composer launched into writing his pithy setting of Forzano’s text (writing the work simultaneously with Suor Angelica), though little is known about the gestation of either piece as Forzano lived extremely close to Puccini and therefore no letters survive (or were ever written). Motivically sparse, Puccini was clearly keen to move quickly from one moment to the next in Gianni Schicchi, never languishing on lyrical outpourings as with Il Tabarro. Small cells of musical ideas make up the majority of the drama of this third part and it is only very rarely that the composer lavishes his melodic gift on his characters. One such moment is the literally show-stopping aria “O mio babbino caro.” Although associated by many with the heat of Tuscany and the gently wayward antics of the English abroad in James Ivory’s delicious film of A Room with a View, it is actually written in a deeply ironic mood. Lauretta may plead to her wily and witty father in a sincere fashion, but she is trying to get her way and cunningly uses her girlish charm (and her unbridled musical sincerity) to win him round. Rinuccio is associated with the other conspiratorial characters by relation, but his candor and honesty are underlined by Puccini’s warm and charming music. When he sings “Firenze è como un albero fiorito” (“Florence is like a tree in flower”), it is impossible not to be won over by his zeal. Gianni Schicchi himself sees in Rinuccio a reliable heir and over the course of the opera, the pithy motifs of the embittered false mourners give way to the unbounded musical outbursts of the lovers’ final pages.

Puccini’s great skill was in pacing the drama; Schicchi (and Puccini, his willing musical accomplice) dispose of each of the dead Buoso’s treasures—the house, the ass, and the mill at Signa—in a perfectly timed and witty manner. Although Puccini has no truck with delineating each of the greedy relatives, he is rightly careful about setting up and delivering the comedy. Schicchi is clear in his intentions to leave the money to his daughter and her fiancé and Puccini allows them the final musical honors. As Lauretta and Rinuccio embrace and sing “Firenze da lontano ci parve il Paradiso!” (“Florence, far off, seemed like Paradise!”), Schicchi wittily concurs that his duping was the best way of disposing of Buoso’s wealth. Puccini gives final punctuation to the proceedings with a bold and brusque full stop, thus ending his concise comedy. Just as Tabarro ended in horror, so Schicchi ends in sunshine.

Amazing, then, to consider that this deft and genuinely droll opera (a rarity, if ever there was one) was not only composed simultaneously with Suor Angelica, but also written to a text by the same librettist. It is often said that as well as being fabulous jokers and perpetual children, the Italians are unashamedly sentimental. The moral humor of Gianni Schicchi is a sure rebuttal to the latter, while Suor Angelica shows Puccini in full emotional flow. Having been brought up in the cathedral music of his hometown of Lucca, Puccini was returning to his roots in writing Suor Angelica. The lachrymose tale of the young nun who learns of her illegitimate child’s death is right out of a Victorian genre painting. Yet, Puccini paints with an enormously broad and generous brush, allowing what, in other hands, could seem merely cloying to come gloriously to life. At the same time as creating the character of Sister Angelica, all sincerity and light, the composer crafted the Princess, perhaps the cruellest demon in all drama.

Like Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, which would follow some thirty years later, Suor Angelica is a series of episodes showing the passing of time in convent life. Relatively static in comparison to the dramatic outer flanks of Il Trittico, this central cloistered work is a haven of calmin the course of the evening. It is only the arrival of the Princess, Angelica’s aunt, that the contemplative still of the nunnery (or the hospital, in the case of the current production) is disturbed. Puccini describes her arrival with an abrupt and altogether harsh motif and what ensues is perhaps one of the clearest delineations between good and evil anywhere in opera. Confronted by this horror— much like Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly before her—Sister Angelica’s goodness cannot endure. But Puccini, taking on the morality of the genre-painting world, creates a glorious epiphanic miracle as Angelica hears a choir of angels that promise her salvation. Many have carped that Puccini was unable to create the whirl of transcendental bliss that Wagner had been able to summon in more mythological circumstances. Yet, seen as the musical exultation of a born and bred Catholic Mediterranean, it would be hard not to be moved by the enormous commotion that Puccini heralds from his forces. At a time when a young generation of Italians were being sent to early deaths in the war, many must have felt in deep need of such a miracle. Fashion and distrust for the religious and overly sincere, however, have forced Suor Angelica out of its central position in the triptych. Like those medieval three-panelled works to which the umbrella title of Puccini’s tripartite masterpiece refers, Suor Angelica is the image of true serenity positioned between two more humane characters. But Puccini was keen to stress that it was its message and not its milieu that was truly important in the piece. “The story is really one of passion, and it’s only the environment that is religious.” Seen in those terms it is anothermanifestation of passion, whether it is Sister Angelica’s convictions, Michele’s violent jealousy in Il Tabarro, or Lauretta and Rinuccio’s youthful romance in Gianni Schicchi. For Puccini, Suor Angelica remained his favorite of the works and for that reason alone it should remain at the heart of any performance of this operatic trio.

Following two years of performances after its premiere at the Met in 1918, Suor Angelica was dropped from the evening and soon the trilogy itself was broken up, with various parts serving as curtain raisers to works as diverse as Strauss’s Salome, Schoenberg’s Erwartung, or Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole. So what do we learn by seeing these three entirely separate works side by side? Some have pictured the evening as journey from darkness to light, yet now such a reading seems glib. Apocryphally one critic entered the opera house entirely unprepared for what he was about to see, promptly misread the drama, and came up with many ludicrous suggestions as to how the action across all three “acts” might be linked, with Buoso, for example, the owner of the convent in which Sister Angelica was a resident. Looking at the operas now, and despite critical claims to the contrary, it is staggering to appreciate what simultaneous concision and sweep he was able to conjure in these brief but telling mini-dramas.

From the through-composition of Il Tabarro, successfully blurring forms—as so deftly achieved in La Fanciulla del West— thereby refuting the “number opera” tag, through the episodic scènes lyriques of Suor Angelica, to the pithy genre play of Gianni Schicchi, this is Puccini, the musical dramatist, playing with all his toys in the course of one evening. The score is littered with the “new sounds” of European music—rich chromaticism, verging on atonality at times, pentatonic harmonies, “found” instruments— yet it is also at the apotheosis of the Italian tradition to which all three works constantly refer. When Toscanini, the great Italian maestro, conducted Turandot, Puccini’s last opera written two years after the completion of Il Trittico, he refused to conduct the reconstructed finale by Franco Alfano. Arriving at to the final bars that Puccini had fully orchestrated, Toscanini supposedly said, “the opera ends here, because at this point the Maestro died. Death was stronger than art.” It has been suggested that with those bars came the end of a “golden century” of Italian opera. Yet for all the greatness and glory of Turandot, the work is essentially a genre-bending hybrid with chinoserie, Stravinsky-esque rhythms, and batteries of chorus, percussion, and brass. Il Trittico on the other hand, about small stories, encompassing naturalism, tear-jerking religiosity, and side-splitting humor, is the true bookend to this great wave of creativity. Within these three diverse works, the Tuscan master created a wonderfully balanced picture of humanity in music.

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End of the Line: Thoughts on Puccini’s Il Trittico at San Francisco Opera