Peabody presents a rare triple-bill of Puccini one-acts

Murai conducts two tragedies and a comedy

Stage: theater, music, dance

November 20, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If you think you know Puccini because you've been to Boheme, Butterfly or Tosca a few times, or even many times, there's still a lot more to learn about the man and his music. His less-performed operas are filled with fascinating characters and stories, propelled by brilliantly crafted scores. This is particularly true of the unusual collection of one-act pieces that Puccini put together as a full evening's dose of music and theater - Il Trittico (The Triptych).

The individual components of this triple bill do get staged periodically, but the chance to experience the complete package has been far from common since the premiere at New York's Metropolitan Opera House in 1918. (The Baltimore Opera Company staged the trio once in 1958.) This weekend, Peabody Opera Theatre offers the two tragedies and one comedy that make up Il Trittico: Il Tabarro (The Cloak), Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) and Gianni Schicchi. Hajime Teri Murai will conduct the alternating casts (three Peabody alumni have returned to sing the principal roles tonight and Saturday). Roger Brunyate is the stage director.

Il Tabarro is set in turn-of-the-century Paris; the action takes place primarily on a barge docked on the Seine. From the very opening, with its subtle, impressionistic touches, you can sense Puccini's genius for creating atmosphere through music; this is among his most inventive scores. The story is very direct. Michele, the barge owner, suspects his wife, Giorgetta, of infidelity. After unsuccessfully attempting to rekindle her past affection, Michele stands alone on the deck and lights a pipe. Giorgetta's lover, Luigi, a stevedore, mistakes that for her coast-is-clear signal and comes aboard. Michele is not a happy boater. He strangles Luigi and hides the body under his cloak, waiting to reveal it to the unsuspecting Giorgetta.

"I've made a slight change at the end," Brunyate says. "It is clear to me that Michele is thinking not only of the death of his wife's lover, but of ending his own life. He knows his marriage is over." That compounded tragedy will be strongly implied in this production.

Suor Angelica is set in a 17th-century Italian convent. Sister Angelica has been in the convent for seven years, sent there by her family as punishment for bearing an illegitimate child. Her stern, unforgiving aunt pays a visit to inform Angelica coldly that the child has died. Angelica, crushed by the news, pours out the hurt in Senza mamma, one of the most poignant arias Puccini ever wrote (it provided the music for a devastating scene in the Tom Hanks film Philadelphia). The nun takes poison to kill herself, realizing too late that such a mortal sin will keep her from being reunited with her son in heaven. But the prayer of forgiveness on her dying lips is answered by a miraculous vision.

Inspired by a few lines in Dante's Inferno, Gianni Schicchi tells the 13th-century tale of the eponymous rascal who agrees to impersonate rich old Donati, who has just died. The impersonation is to last only as long as it takes to dictate a new will that ensures Donati's greedy relatives will get everything in his estate, instead of the church, as intended. But Schicchi outwits the lot of them and ends up with the hefty inheritance himself. In the midst of all this trickery, Schicchi's daughter makes a famous plea for her father to help pave the way for her to marry her boyfriend, a Donati relative. That plea comes in the form of one of Puccini's best-loved arias, O mio babbino caro (a favorite on TV commercials).

Puccini did not set out to link three operas. The only subject they have in common - even the comedy - is death. But Brunyate gives them more of a connection in the Peabody staging.

"I'm setting all three in the same period, roughly the turn of the century," the director says. "I make no apology whatsoever for this. In the case of Schicchi, I think when you do it [in 13th-century costumes], people just see a lot of fancy dress up there. But these are really characters from our own world; we should recognize them, with all their middle-class hypocrisies. I know I can give names of my own relatives to go along with all those characters."

For Brunyate, directing Il Tabarro is a particularly rewarding experience.

"It is my favorite Puccini of all," he says. "I don't know any other Puccini opera that asks such real questions of the characters - and that has real answers come back. And those answers mean something. In La Boheme, what really is the problem between Rodolfo and Mimi? We don't really know, whereas everything is totally clear in the wonderful play that Puccini set to music in Il Tabarro."

Directors can be stumped when it comes to the mystical finale of Suor Angelica, a scene that asks audiences to accept a lot on faith. "You play it on its own terms, or you don't play it at all," Brunyate says. "I interpret the vision as true. I don't think it pays to become revisionist with Puccini. He can be so darn manipulative, but you've got to go with it."

The sorrow and pity aroused by Suor Angelica makes a decided contrast with the earthier passion and cruelty of Il Tabarro. "By the time Gianni Schicchi arrives," Brunyate says, "you are absolutely ready for a comic take on death."

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 50.

Il Trittico

Where: Peabody Institute, 1 E. Mount Vernaon Place.

When: 7:30 tonight, Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $24; $10 students; $12 seniors

Call: 410-659-8100, Ext. 2

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