A Careful “Trittico” raises questions and invokes us to look at the past for answers

Stefanie Blythe as the Zia Principessa and Patricia Racette as Suor Angelica

New York Times Review of Il Trittico

I’ve included the Times’ review of the Met’s current production of Puccini’s Il Trittico to offer an opposing opinion to my own, which in this case is based on the historical area of Puccinian Aesthetics and 19th Century Italian Opera.  Although I did not have a chance to see the production live while I was last in New York, I listened to it on XM radio and so I am going to be generous in terms of comments on voices; mind you, the stylistic manner of singing is evident whether one hears opera in the theatre or live on the radio.

Having spent the majority of my education studying Puccini’s operas historically and musically, I often miss the feeling of hearing something for the first time, that virgin listening that excites us because our ear is being introduced to something new.  So, when I listen to opera I try to listen without putting my historical understanding in the forefront.  I wait to be moved first and then later reflect on historical understanding.  While I think the Met is trying to do the right thing, (I, for one, will never complain when any company wants to mount my precious Puccini’s operas) there were several things that affected the overall production being a great one.

In terms of the singing, Stefanie Blythe was my favourite singer in the production and was well-suited to her roles.  She sang with good diction and inflection, even if she tended to over sing (which is not necessary because her voice doesn’t need to be bigger in order to sing these roles).  Today, for some reason, we think that to sing Puccini one needs to have a huge voice.  This is absolutely not the case, and Puccini himself never as much once indicated this.  Instead, he looked for singers who would sing “aesthetically” well, which meant that he wanted singers who had the right understanding about how to sing his music; that is, the voice has to move from note to note by passing through all of the pitches in between.  So, how do you do that?  Essentially, it means that this music is sung with a Bel Canto technique (not with straight tone), and that the voice spins through the intervals (the spaces between notes) through portamenti, which no one seems to want to do anymore.  I’ll come back to this point momentarily

Patricia Racette, while she is courageous to approach all three roles, is suited more to Lauretta than she is to Suor Angelica and Giorgetta.  Unfortunately, she did not approach the Puccinian palate according to his requirements.  This was most obvious in the role of Angelica, which she over dramatized due to a lack of aesthetic inflection.  One thinks of Tebaldi, or Scotto in this role, singers who still remained true to the Puccinian language even up to 20 years ago.  Racette’s singing of “Senza Mamma” was lacking in the freedom that Puccini’s dramatic monologues require.  For this, I blame the conductor, who was making his Met premiere in this production.  As much as he was able to get some very beautiful colours and textures from the Met’s wonderful orchestra, Maestro Stefano Ranzani was much too careful in his phrasing and in leading the orchestra through the variety of tinte that Puccini effects in Il Trittico.

Trittico is special because it is the first opera after a break in composition after 1908 that returned to his original notion of love and death (Minnie in Fanciulla del West is one of the only heroines who does not die for love).  Puccini wrote the Trittico to correlate with that exquisite dramatic work that remains the official model for things in three:  Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia. In that, each opera is to represent one of the metaphysical worlds:  Hell (Il Tabarro), Purgatory (Suor Angelica), Heaven (Gianni Schicchi).  It is also one of the reasons why Puccini was adamant that the operas not be performed separately, just as Dante did not want the parts of his allegory separated.  They do not make sense until they are combined as one.    As such, the orchestral palate in Il Trittico must change with each, a change I did not hear in this production.  The tinte that Puccini infuses into the music are inherent to the dramatic concept of the scena; in Suor Angelica, for example, the expansion of phrases and the rubato that is necessary in order to effect the text that is often declaimed.  It is the orchestra in Trittico that speaks the truth and creates the atmosphere, but in this production the strict timing and measured phrases actually stunted the overall projection of each scene.  The palate itself, unfortunately, did not sound Puccinian.

It is, however, wonderful that the Met has staged this production which originally premiered at the Met in 1918.  I ask why, when we listen to recordings of this opera in the past, or even available videos, that the singing and orchestral style are completely different from what we are hearing, as of late?  While some might call that “old-fashioned” style, I ask who labeled it as such?  Puccini died in 1924, not that long ago, and it is interesting that his aesthetic style is getting further and further away from what it was originally as we get further and further away from when he died.  Perhaps we need to take time to reflect on this and ask whether this is acceptable, especially when we do so much to retain historical performance practice in so many other genres, Bach, Baroque Music/Opera, performing on period instruments, etc… Why should performing Puccini’s works be any different?  The solution is simple, perhaps we need to look at the past for answers and remain true to what the composer wanted, otherwise, can we accurately call these productions accurate representations?

Food for thought….

Precious Giacomo….what would you have to say?

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Right-on. Still waiting for the promised DVD release of the Scotto “Trittico”. One has to rely on past recordings to get any sense of style. Tebaldi, Scotto, De Los Angeles could all move you to tears, whether or not they ever sang it on stage. They had the style, they understood the musical context and they certainly delivered the text–particularly Tebaldi whose native language supplied its own music.

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