English Touring Opera: Il Tabarro Reviewed

English Touring Opera: A Quadruple Bill. Il Tabarro reviewed by George Fleeton English Touring Opera (ETO) returned to the Grand Opera House in Belfast for a second visit (25-28 May) and played, as was the case last year,* to houses disappointingly less than full, at least on the two nights I was there. It is to be fervently hoped that this will not deter ETO from a further visit to a city pretty well starved of opera, for they have promised two superb operas from opposite ends of the 19th century and set at opposite ends of European culture: Tchaikovsky’s greatest opera Yevgeny Onegin (1881), a revival from five years ago, and Rossini’s breakthrough opera Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816), in a new production. It was extremely ambitious this year for an opera company with only a small office in London to ferry over four different productions to Belfast at the end of a nationwide tour which started mid-February in Croydon. The first of these, Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr Fox, I was unable to attend. But the double bill of two of Puccini’s Trittico – which premiered not at La Scala in Milan but at the New York Met in 1918 – was worth seeing. Or was it? When Puccini eventually got his triptych written, all his great strengths as an instinctive man of the theatre were in evidence in these short, unrelated operas which were meant to travel together to provide audiences with a demanding but contrasting evening of emotions: a grim, oppressive Parisian melodrama, a religious fantasy set in a convent, and a farce set in Dante’s Florence. It is always the second of these, Suor Angelica, which never seems to make the cut, so last week we were offered the first, Il Tabarro and the third, Gianni Schicchi. Tabarro (The Cloak) is a smashing little piece. There really is nothing like it in the Italian repertoire, neither Mascagni’s Sicilian tragedy, Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), nor Leoncavallo’s circus melodrama, I Pagliacci (1892) each – compact as brilliant short stories – taking 70 minutes to say its piece. Tabarro (running time 52 minutes – if the tempi are correct) owes something to each of them but, because Puccini is driving, it overtakes both of them. He is quite specific: “Paris, at the beginning of the present century. A barge moored in the River Seine. In the background are seen the outlines of Notre Dame illuminated by the rays of the setting sun.” Not an iota, not a dot of this was in evidence in ETO’s dreary production of Il Tabarro. A largely neutral and indeed clumsy set, in which the perspectives were all wrong, and Puccini’s motley collection of secondary characters largely left to their own devices could diminish neither its power as a piece-de-théâtre (with its Aristotelian unity of time, place and action) nor our empathy with one of  Puccini’s least known heroines, Giorgetta. She and the two male principals are established with a few well-aimed musical strokes, without revealing to us the love triangle at the heart of the opera, or hinting at its tragic dénouement. It is unusual in Puccini’s work to find a character referring to the hardships of labour, so Luigi’s short aria (‘…what good is life to us, poor toiling wretches; don’t dare to raise your eyes, the whip is waiting?…’) is especially striking. La Frugola’s nostalgia for a little country cottage takes us back to Tosca’s similar aspiration and of course there is the better known reference to the story of Mimì. This was Puccini’s first attempt at a one act opera. He was 60 and feeling his age at that time. All the greater works were behind him. Only the troubles of Turandot lay ahead. To his eternal credit, Il Tabarro feels and sounds like a full length opera; its dramatic truth is unassailable; it has a beginning, a  middle and an end each perfectly weighed and balanced (as is the case in the other two Trittico operas, it must be said). The harmonies are simple and evocative; the colours of the music are firstly sharp, then saturated and finally dark, beginning with the Seine motif right through to the cloak theme in the wonderful baritone monologue ‘Nulla! Silenzio!’ and on to the final coup de théâtre. How unfortunate then that ETO’s staging of this exceptional little opera, so well sung but so rarely seen in this part of the world, should have left so much to be desired on the night, with not a vestige of Paris, the Seine, Notre Dame or the ominous sunset. It simply wasn’t knitted together as a very good chamber piece ought to be. The evening was saved by the second leaf of the double bill, Gianni Schicchi. This and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito will be reviewed here shortly. Meanwhile Scottish Opera is at the Grand Opera House (16-18 June) with two performances of Verdi’s incomparable Rigoletto (1851), the first part of his unofficial trilogy. And at the Queen’s Film Theatre on 26 June there is a live satellite relay from Glyndebourne Festival Opera of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), his only human comedy. But do please note that the running time is about 6 hours. George Fleeton teaches opera and cinema in higher education. * See Review posted here on 01/05/10 English Touring Opera: A Triple Bill.]]>