Four years ago Richard Jones turned his gift for black comedy to a wickedly amusing production of Gianni Schicchi, set among the floral wallpaper and beehive hairdos of the 1950s. It was a great success and an obvious move to invite him back to complete Puccini’s rarely seen triptych of one-act operas, Il trittico.
Taken together, his new productions of Il tabarro and Suor Angelica combine with the existing Gianni Schicchi to make a brilliant evening. Here are three highly contrasted views of 20th-century life and three varied communities, each wrestling with deprivations of a different kind as they tell us their stories tragic, sentimental and comic.
What were the chances of employing three different designers and hitting three bull’s eyes? Ultz sets Il tabarro along the wide, horizontal line of a canal lined with buildings of blackened brick and lit by a neon sex industry sign (it looks more like Amsterdam than Paris, but never mind). For Suor Angelica, Miriam Buether moves to the high, vertical, airy space of a children’s ward in a hospital run by nuns – two impressive stage pictures that work perfectly alongside the Gianni Schicchi.
And how potently Jones brings the worlds they show to life. His view of Il tabarro homes in on the daily grind of lower-class labour, as men dredge metal scrap from the canal and seamstresses toil in a canalside factory. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s dowdy Giorgetta and Aleksandrs Antonenko’s burly Luigi look the part and field gut-wrenching, muscular (though not very Italianate) singing, while Lucio Gallo’s jealous husband Michele is strongly, but sometimes uneasily sung.
In Suor Angelica the nuns, led by Elena Zilio’s authoritative Monitress, immerse themselves in a world of daily hospital routine. This middle opera of the triptych can feel a wishy-washy affair, but Jones takes the encounter between Ermonela Jaho’s deeply felt Sister Angelica, a shade on the small side vocally, and the hate figure of Anna Larsson’s imposing Principessa to its emotional breaking point – almost too much really, but gripping nonetheless.
Add in Gianni Schicchi and these are three engrossing performances. Music director Antonio Pappano might be more fleet of foot in the comedy, but the wholehearted playing he gets from the Royal Opera orchestra keeps the emotion pumping away at maximum through the whole evening. Il trittico does not come better than this.