Scottish Opera: Il trittico
Theatre Royal, Glasgow
When Scottish Opera first announced its 2022/23 60th anniversary season, the plan was for Sir David McVicar to stage all three short operas of Puccini’s Il trittico on the one set with an ensemble cast. At some point along the line that bold notion fell by the wayside, and only one singer – soprano Francesca Chiejina, making a memorable company debut – appears in all three pieces (as does actor Keith MacPherson in small silent roles, including the lively corpse of Buoso Donati in Gianni Schicchi).
The set designs, by Charles Edwards, who is also working with Scottish Opera for the first time, are grand and bespoke for each story, to the impressive extent of a moving barge docking at the quayside at the start of Il tabarro (The Cloak), and the splendidly angular tapering perspective of the cluttered room where Donati dies and Schicchi tricks his family out of the juiciest cuts of his estate.
In between sits the problem piece of the trio, Suor Angelica, the convent-set story of an unmarried mother, a child given up for adoption, another family legacy and the mortal sin of suicide. As mezzo Karen Cargill – terrific in the piece as Angelica’s domineering aunt, “The Princess” – promised in her interview with VoxCarnyx, McVicar manages to redeem Sister Angelica with an inspired staging of the work. Alongside Cargill there are characterful cameos from Chiejina and Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Lea Shaw, and Edwards and McVicar have created what is one of the best uses of a staircase in music theatre since The Sound of Music.
The other crucial ingredient is the performance of Korean soprano Sunyoung Seo in the title role. Another company debut, she is a real find, with a glorious voice across her range, quite thrilling at the top and full of emotional heft, combined with a magnetic stage presence and acting skill. The ending of Suor Angelica has been condemned as sentimental nonsense, but she, and the young lad playing the ghost of her dead child, made it genuinely moving in McVicar’s staging.
She is just as effective as Giorgetta in the soap opera love triangle of Il tabarro, for all its cliches of melodrama. Her complex characterisation matches that of Roland Woods as her barge-skipper husband Michele, and her voice is well paired with that of Russian tenor Viktor Antipenko as Luigi (yet another company debut).
There are no weak links in the vocal casting in those first two operas at all, and that high standard of musicianship on stage is paralleled in the pit across the whole evening, where conductor Stuart Stratford steers a huge orchestra, including some exotic instrumental colours, through a terrific account of a score that is Puccini at the very pinnacle of his powers.
Where Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica are immaculately paced by McVicar and Stratford, Gianni Schicchi comes roaring out of the blocks like a whippet on speed – a riot of colour in set, costumes and sound, and delighting in its hectic ‘70s sitcom aesthetic. That frantic activity builds to Lauretta’s showstopping aria O mio babbino caro (the best-known music in the whole four hours and Francesca Chiejina’s big moment) and then runs out of steam. Woods is fine as Schicchi, but not as funny as some of the Donati family clowning around him, and marooned upstage for too much of the time.
It is an odd lapse by McVicar, who is a master of naturalistic theatrical narrative in opera, but the broad comedy of the most often seen part of this trilogy fails to communicate as confidently as the tragedy of the two earlier tales.