NSO’s Il Trittico

performed by Taiwan’s 國家交響樂團 a.k.a. National Symphony Orchestra a.k.a. Taiwan Philharmonic, or below in a trailer for the work from The Royal Opera

This is a concert (opera) review, and less so a discussion of the opera itself, but I’m counting it as such.

This month’s opera series centers around the fact that summer is the time we have opera stagings here in Taiwan. I tried to fit this performance into the timeline with Wozzeck and all the rest, but it’s just a few years out of place.

Background

Giacomo Puccini’s Il Trittico (The Triptych) is actually three one-act operas, as opposed to one opera in multiple acts. I love this idea!

Puccini had been interested in writing a multiple-story opera as early as 1904, after the enormous 1890 success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, and he eventually decided to go through with it, ultimately ditching the idea he had to center each of the three small operas around Dante’s famous epic Divine Comedy. Ultimately, only the last of the three is related to the poem, and the first based on a different stage work entirely. The works were premiered on December 14, 1918, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (!!!) making this week’s run in Taiwan (what I’m sure is the local premiere) not quite the 100-year anniversary of the work. We’re about a year and a half off, but that’s still pretty close.

The three independent works are as follows:

  1. Il tabarro- The opera is very dark and brooding, full of the violence and grit associated with verismo opera.
  2. Suor Angelica- This second opera, Puccini’s personal favorite[8] (but usually the one to be omitted if only two of the operas are performed), is an uplifting tale of religious redemption.
  3. Gianni Schicchi- The third opera is the most popular, a farce full of greed and conniving.

The above short descriptions come from the Wikipedia article for the work. There are links in that article to the specific articles for each of these individual works, but we won’t talk about them in that much detail.

The first of the three is set in (what was once) modern times, the most modern chronologically of the three, taking place (at least originally) in 1910. It’s based on Didier Gold’s play La houppelande, and features a barge owner and his wife, their employees, some infidelity, a plan to run away, and a murder. It’s a gripping story with irony and tragedy and is the violent one of the three.

Second is Suor Angelica, the softer centerpiece of the trilogy, like a middle slow movement of the larger work. It revolves around the title character, Sister Angelica, at a convent (originally set) in the 17th century, who has secrets, and discovers secrets, and how they change her and how she reacts to them. Not even it is a feel-good, though, but there is a (depending on the design, perhaps literal) ray of hope for our female lead at the end.

The third, a very interesting story indeed, is set in the most distant past, very specifically 1299, according to Wiki, but not so much in Moyer’s design, with a giant white iron lung and a TV in the room. (The notary coughs during the pronouncement of the year.) A man is called to his neighbors’ home when they discover that their father/uncle/relative has left all his possessions to the monastery. Gianni, the title character, concocts an interesting solution to the family’s concern, with especially generous benefits to himself. (Both Gianni and Buoso Donati, the dead man in question, are historical figures, and mentioned only very briefly, and kind of tangentially, in Dante’s famous work.) Wiki’s summaries are better. We don’t have time for that now.

The composer fully intended all three operas to be performed together in a series, in that order, and expressed disappointment when only one was performed, or when the central work was removed, leaving only the first and last. If you go read the full descriptions of the works you’ll notice (spoiler alert!) that there is a theme that runs through all three works, and it is somewhat broad; I didn’t notice it at first: the concealment of a death. The reactions and portrayals and motivations are wildly different, but the three stories, with their different presentations and atmospheres, all center around a rather dark idea, but I am fascinated, absolutely fascinated, by the idea of seemingly unrelated things being connected by a seemingly unrelated, even rather abstract, idea. Needless to say, I was very excited about being able to see the opera live.

(I won’t really talk about the work in a lot of detail here, but the three works can almost be seen as individual ‘movements’ or acts across the larger whole of the opera, one which in a very literal way centers around death: there’s a tragedy, a redemption, and a comedy of sorts. The third, Gianni Schicchi, is the only one where there’s mention made of motifs related to specific characters, but each work has at least a few arias that might seem familiar. O Mio Babbino Caro, sung by Lauretta in the final installment, is certainly the most famous aria of the whole triptych and one of the most popular in all of opera.)

The Staging

This is really what makes opera what it is, isn’t it? There’s performance to it, sure, with the human voice, and actions and movement, but with the little opera I’ve been able to experience live, the overall design and staging is the first thing that can really make you struggle to choke back an audible gasp or “wow” in the theater. Our production featured stage design from Allen Moyer, famously (?) presented in San Francisco in 2009, a discussion of which (with some pictures) can be found here. I absolutely love the set of Gianni Schicchi, while a trypophobic coworker said she maybe didn’t care for the pattern. It’s certainly arresting.

So much of the intensity of a work comes from the staging, to me, visually and aesthetically (I feel those are different), either supporting or contradicting the overall ‘style’ of the subject matter or music. The NSO’s Fidelio of a few years ago, with Opernhaus Zürich, was starkly, almost aggressively, modern and minimalist, while Beethoven’s score is neither of those things, but it worked beautifully. Anyway, opera is also the absolute pinnacle of ‘you had to be there’, and I wasn’t going to be that person who ushers hate who takes photos and disregards rules and manners, but sorry… you really had to be there.

The Music

It’s Puccini. The music is perfect.

It’s lyrical, or powerful, or comical, lively, delicate, heavenly, gripping, chest-pounding, colorful, mellifluous, on and on. It’s the overall reason this work is such an outstanding joy to see/hear: Puccini has written such astoundingly effective, moving music, suitable for each of the separate stories which unravel. I don’t have a section for the stories, but as a lover of fiction, the construction of drama, irony, simplicity and heft of all three of these works is just so eloquently perfect.

The Performance

I love our NSO. I dropped a fat wad of cash on their season tickets that went on sale last week, so I’m looking forward to sitting in my (new) seat for most of their concerts this season. I’d been looking (more and more) forward to this night for a year, from the first announcement I’d heard of it in July of 2016. To be honest, I was disappointed it wasn’t something more adventurous or more familiar (to me as an unabashed newcomer to opera), like Wozzeck, or Shostakovich’s Lady MacBeth or dare I say Glass’s Einstein, but the more I read about this work, the more I looked forward to it, and it was truly superb.

Maestro Lu and the NSO sounded absolutely superb.

I had friends in America who knew what I meant when I talked about a “no-weather day.” That was when it wasn’t hot, or cold, or even warm, or windy, or anything, just perfect, so Goldilocks just right as not even to be noticeable. The NSO’s performance was perfection. They were lithe warm and limber, solos from violin, or trumpet, cello, bass clarinet, horn, flute were perfect, everything so well executed as to seem… incorporeal…? Perhaps I just don’t know the piece well enough to be concerned with matters of interpretation, but it was pristine to my ear.

And that’s to say nothing of our singers, who were all magnificent. As the cover of the program mentions, this is a coproduction with the Daegu Opera House, that being the reason for the abundance of Korean performers. We also had most of our local stars, like Grace Lin (林慈音), Jo-Pei Weng (翁若珮), Julian Lo (羅俊穎), Fernando Wang (王典), and Ling-Hui Lin (林玲慧), who was breathtaking as Suor Angelica. I have to make mention also of Hanying Tso-Petanaj (左涵瀛) as Giorgetta, alongside Hector Sandoval’s Luigi. I mean, really just everyone was incredible, and you can see their names above in those terribly captured photos of the creative and production team that I’m too lazy to retake. Lastly, our Lauretta (李佳蓉) was wonderful in that famous aria, and Lucio Gallo stole the show as Gianni Schicchi. I know he’s not that way in real life, but he fooled me. Scoundrel.

Thoughts

I have them.

First, really, you had to be there. I’m so glad to know people in the audience, or better yet to go with friends, to have someone to chat with about it later, because it’s just so captivating.

Love the story, the literary, dramatic aspects of the three stories presented. One could criticize the re-staging of designs done elsewhere already (like Fidelio from a few years ago, or that über-modern design of Wagner’s Ring cycle they’re getting through from that Spanish group), but I haven’t seen them, so they’re still new to me! And I’d rather have that over a bland powdered-wig, stodgy staging any day.

Of the three installments of the opera, I expected Suor Angelica to be the least convincing, dare I say even the rest between the two outer stories; it’s most often subject to removal from the trilogy, but honestly, as my fellow opera-goer for the evening (regular concert companion) also agrees, it was one of the most touching by far. Granted, it wasn’t overt or showy or big and boomy, but so touching, tastefully done, wholly absorbing. It certainly helped that our Angelica was out-of-this-world good.

My only gripe with the evening overall would be the beginning. I was very much looking forward to Il Tabarro, but found the first half of the acting not terribly engaging. The performers themselves were superb, but the direction behind it was lacking. If there weren’t too many people on stage, there were too few, and it lacked energy. I appreciated the apparent languidness of the lead characters, but if that were the intent, it could have been sold better. What seemed weakest were moments when the other stevedores were on stage, singing or dancing. Motions seemed without purpose, uninspired. I found myself trying to think of more exciting things they could be doing (playing cards, soccer, etc.), some action to give those people purpose. The whole first swathe of ‘the cloak’ had quite a bit of slack in it for me, but only in the acting and stage direction. Giorgetta was sultry and sensual, very convincing indeed, and an outstanding performer. Her shriek at the final reveal made my blood run cold.

So that’s my only criticism. I usually don’t have them; I’m very willing to suspend disbelief and don’t find much point in being nitpicky unless I find something egregious. To the credit of the production, the somewhat (dare I say) bland nature of the first part of Il Tabarro made for a wonderful contrast with the latter half, where people are lusting and reminiscing and deceiving and eventually killing, and I’m willing to believe that was intentional.

Conclusion

Again, really, you had to be there. I could talk about how Michele stood over Luigi’s dead body like a streaker doing his thing to hide the corpse from Giorgetta until the moment he stepped aside and how truly tragic it was (have you ever had such chills you thought you might be in danger of wetting yourself? Me neither…), or the tenderness and softness of the light blue set design for Suor Angelica with its harsh lighting, or the absolute hilarity of the physical and emotional comedy of Gianni, but some of that isn’t necessarily specific to this staging of the work.

Celibidache loved the Japanese concept of , that this thing that has happened will never again happen, that that moment will never again exist as it just did, and it’s exactly what makes that staging of the work that you see so special, if it’s as captivating as what we had tonight. It’s precious because it’s rare, evanescent, magical and powerful but that’s it.

Opera is a (the?) pinnacle of art forms, and they’re far and few between in Taiwan, unfortunately. Tonight was a delight, and earns more of my trust in our Maestro for presenting us such an exceptional work and handling it so well.

We’ve got another opera coming up in a few weeks back at the theater from another of our local establishments, so do stay tuned for that, and thanks to both of you for reading this far. I appreciate it muchly.

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