As she prepares for Scottish Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Il trittico, mezzo Karen Cargill talks to Keith Bruce
Sir David McVicar’s new production of Puccini’s problematic late-career triple-bill Il trittico will, Scottish Opera has said, address the difficulties inherent in staging its three contrasting stories in a single evening with adaptable staging and an ensemble cast.
The success or otherwise of the approach will become clear at the Theatre Royal on Saturday, but the presence in the company of Scotland’s star mezzo-soprano, Karen Cargill, already signals a departure from the plan.
Cargill will be seen only in the central – and most problematic – of the three pieces, singing La Principessa in Suor Angelica, the thoroughly nasty regal aunt of the titular heroine. While the first story, Il tabarro (The Cloak), is a dramatic dark tale of love and murder on a barge, and the last, Gianni Schicchi, a fun comedy that is often seen as a stand-alone, the sentimental convent-set all-female Sister Angelica is about unmarried pregnancy, suicide and redemption.
It is possible to draw interesting parallels with the composer’s own life from the original story by librettist Giovacchino Forzano (who also wrote Schicchi), but the fact that the venerable Kobbe Opera Guide devotes just a single paragraph to Suor Angelica while finding two pages of things to say about the other two parts of Il trittico speaks of the way the middle tale is often regarded.
Unsurprisingly, Cargill thinks that McVicar’s version will sort any problems. Her own casting certainly bodes well, as it builds on her acclaimed performance as Mere Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues de Carmelites at the New York Met. In fact she will return to that role in a new production by Barry Kosky this summer, the first time Glyndebourne has tackled the work.
“The Principessa is an extraordinary character because she is so hard, which is a treat to play, because I don’t get to play many characters like that.
“She is a little like Mere Marie in Carmelites, who is someone who has a strong belief system – the Word of God is everything and it dictates how she reacts and communicates. Mere Marie is often seen as a real baddy, but I don’t think she is in the way the Principessa in Suor Angelica is.”
The scene between The Princess and her niece is the dramatic heart of the tale. Arriving to have Angelica renounce her claim on the family fortune, she brutally tells her that the baby she gave up is dead. Patricia Bardon tried to soften the delivery of the crucial line in a touring Opera North staging a few years ago, but that will not be the way Cargill delivers it for McVicar.
“It is a test not to show compassion, because Sunyoung Seo, who is playing Angelica, is so gorgeous and so immersed in the whole thing. The aria I have is angular but dramatic, so it has that romantic Puccini language but with a hardness there.
“I’ve seen so many of David McVicar’s shows over the years, and I always thought that it was the type of story-telling that I want to do. That’s the beauty of this job, that you get to play complex characters who are not one-dimensional.”
As for the contention that Suor Angelica is the sentimental weak link in Il trittico, Cargill is having none of it.
“This production is emotionally direct and truthful. The thing with David’s work is that all the characters are recognisably human. It’s emotional but not sentimental – it’s direct.
“I don’t know why it is less admired because I think it is an extraordinary piece. I think people will fall in love with it, because of how it is done.”
The production is part of a busy year for the mezzo, who recently seemed to be taking a step back from her performing schedule when she accepted a post as Interim Head of Vocal Studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
“There’s been quite a bit of travel recently, just when you’d got used to being at home, for the first time in 20 years.
“Once this closes I go to Brazil for Bluebeard’s Castle with Sir Richard Armstrong and the Sao Paulo State Symphony. I am going a few days early rather than just turn up and sing, so I’m in Brazil for ten days.
“Then there’s an SCO tour of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’ete [St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow], before a teaching residency and a concert at Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst. I drive to Glyndebourne the day after that and start on the Monday.
“I couldn’t give the Head of Vocal Studies job the full energy that I wanted to give it, and sing at the same time. I would have had to have stopped singing, and that’s my addiction. But I still want to work with young singers and share real information.
“So I’m no longer head of department but still an Associate Artist, so this year I work with third and fourth year undergraduates. It’s about eight visits across the year, and I am taking two sopranos, a mezzo, two tenors and a baritone to Drumlanrig Castle at the end of next month, at the end of which they perform at the Tryst.
“I encourage students to listen as widely as they can but also not to become locked in to what someone else does. That emotional freedom and curiosity about how to perform a piece is important. Music is about joy and communication and you must not lose the ability to play around with that.”
Recently signed to the big international agency Askonas Holt, Cargill happily lists works (the Trojans by Berlioz and any number of Verdi roles) and theatres (La Scala, Milan and Sydney Opera House) that she hopes lie in her future.
“If it happens, great, but if it doesn’t that’s OK. You have to be realistic. I’ve never had a set path of things I want to accomplish. I’d love to sing Carmen but I don’t think it will ever come my way.”
Puccini’s hard, bad Princess is what obsesses her at the moment, and she is excited about revisiting the Poulenc, a work she first sang as a student in Glasgow.
“It is the most extraordinary music. There is a constant sense of unease, you never get to relax in Carmelites. The Kosky production could be radical and I’m up for that – we should all be challenged every day.”
Scottish Opera’s Il trittico opens at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on Saturday March 11 for three performances, followed by two at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. Full details scottishopera.org.uk