Il trittico; BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Wigglesworth – review

Royal Opera House; Barbican, London
Ermonela Jaho is unforgettable in Royal Opera’s revival of Puccini’s Il trittico. Plus Britten with added visuals…

A dimly lit quayside drab with poverty and toil. A women’s cloister spotless but for the stain of indelible sin. The bedroom of a dying man made all the more airless by the gabbing and pecking of his greedy family. Three worlds, three sets of desires and three operas. Puccini described his Il trittico, with some bathos, as a work about “great sorrow in little souls”. We see it complete all too rarely, chiefly for practical reasons of scale, large cast and a long evening, though let’s not forget that Opera Holland Park pulled off a great staging last year.

Richard Jones’s brilliant 2011 production for the Royal Opera has been revived. I attended the second performance. The conductor, Nicola Luisotti, may not mine Puccini’s score with quite the same range of finely calibrated emotion found by Antonio Pappano last time round, but he honours all three scores, as do the ROH orchestra. Il tabarro (The Cloak) is often perceived, in this production too, as the weakest. On the contrary, in Ultz’s designs it has a raw, hard quality, which suits the oppressive cruelty of the situation: a husband and wife trapped in the pain of a lost child, and her lover who seems to offer redemption and pleasure. Lucio Gallo (Michele) and Carl Tanner (Luigi) express those complex layers of feeling, but Patricia Racette’s vocally powerful Giorgetta lays bare a soul racked with anguish.

In Suor Angelica, another soul in torment, another lost infant, the opera belongs to Ermonela Jaho reprising the title role. She acts superbly. Her half-voice, sustained with astonishing security and variety, reflects both stoicism and frailty. Jaho’s performance is the one we’ll all remember in this Trittico. Anna Larsson as the icy Princess and an ensemble of starched nuns complete an ideal cast. Miriam Buether’s clinical designs – updated to an American Catholic children’s hospital c1960, all eau-de-nil and, one suspects, eau de vie – still looks stunning.

As for Gianni Schicchi, first performed in this staging in 2007 as a double bill with Ravel’s L’heure espagnole, it continues to offer the laughter and wit that (almost) make you wish Puccini had chosen more comedy for his final work instead of the decidedly unfunny Turandot. Back in the title role of Schicchi, Lucio Gallo was laconic and cunning. Of the large cast, Gwynne Howell, Jeremy White, Marie McLaughlin and Rebecca Evans stood out. Susanna Hurrell and Paolo Fanale were delightful, elegant-voiced sweethearts. Elena Zilio as cousin Zita has an entire comedy act compressed into her small but vital role. Her shriek of “ladro” – thief – would reduce the whole of Tuscany’s carabinieri to a quiver.

Agon – the Greek word means struggle, or contest – was Stravinsky’s final ballet, composed for the Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine. Marcel Duchamp likened its impact, at the New York premiere in 1957, to that of The Rite of Spring more than 40 years earlier. It remains, however, a relative rarity in the concert hall. Full of baroque influence, with prominent use of solo instruments (notably violin, mandolin and harp), it gleams and dazzles with cool, streamlined vigour, the epitome of modernism. The work opened a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert which also included his Symphony of Psalms (1930), potently sung by the BBC Symphony Chorus. There are no soloists in this austere yet heart-rending work. The final, far from traditional hymn of praise, with seemingly endless repetitions of “laudate” to the quiet urging of a constant, six-note throbbing figure in timpani and two pianos, was tenderly achieved by players, singers and the conductor Ryan Wigglesworth.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ryan Wigglesworth in rehearsals at the Barbican last week, with Tal Rosner’s video work as backdrop.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ryan Wigglesworth in rehearsals at the Barbican last week, with Tal Rosner’s video behind them. Photograph: Garry Maclennan

Then this talented musician, also a pianist, turned composer. The soloist in his Violin Concerto was Barnabás Kelemen, whose poetic and lyrical playing suited Wigglesworth’s ingeniously coloured score. Unexpectedly it begins and ends quietly, questing rather than stating, building to a noisy Allegro furioso and coming to rest with a whispered and wistful farewell. The work has been recorded by NMC: have a listen.

The last work was Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, daringly as close to illustration as music can get. These are the moments in the opera, usually, when the curtain comes down and the swirl and sparkle and mist and ferment of the North Sea off the Suffolk coast play on your mind’s eye. This was not so here. Four major orchestras, from Miami, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco, had commissioned video projections, called “visual interpretations” and new to the UK, from the American graphic designer Tal Rosner. The BBCSO added the Passacaglia from Grimes as a fifth video commission, here receiving its world premiere.

They were not for me. The BBCSO played with verve and characteristic expertise while mechanistic collages of squares and lines, intercut with cityscapes, bridges and rivers, moved ceaselessly behind them like an enormous screensaver. It brought to mind the opening titles of Dallas. The question of how to enliven the concert experience – though the Sea Interludes have always felt quite lively to me – is real enough, that of how to use visuals without detracting from the music equally foxing. The difficulty is that Rosner’s images take their energy from Britten’s score and drain it in the process. The experiment continues. I did ask myself what, if anything, I would want to see while listening to this music. A webcam on Aldeburgh beach might be an answer.

Star ratings (out of 5)
Il trittico ****
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Wigglesworth ****

Il trittico is in rep at the Royal Opera House, London until 15 March


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Rigoletto; London Symphony Orchestra/Rattle – review
One grisly moment aside, Oliver Mears’s ROH debut production delivers a remarkably straightforward evening of sweeping Verdi

Stephen Pritchard

18, Sep, 2021 @11:30 AM

Article image
Il trittico – review
A marathon production of Puccini's triptych is a masterclass in taut, nuanced drama, writes Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

17, Sep, 2011 @10:30 PM

Article image
The Exterminating Angel; Doctor Atomic review – incendiary Adès and Adams
Two living composers, two powerful operas, two striking performances

Fiona Maddocks

28, Apr, 2017 @10:20 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Kát’a Kabanová; Radu Lupu; Bach’s Mass in B minor – review
Amanda Majeski makes an unforgettable debut in Richard Jones’s exemplary new production of Janáček’s great late opera. And time stands still with Radu Lupu

Fiona Maddocks

09, Feb, 2019 @4:00 PM

Article image
The week in classical: Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill; Le nozze di Figaro; BBC Symphony Orchestra – reviews
Opera North singers take a nimble turn through Kurt Weill’s songbook. Plus, a notable debut at Nevill Holt and Mariam Batsashvili at Maida Vale

Fiona Maddocks

23, Jun, 2018 @1:00 PM

Article image
Tosca; La rondine; Arensky Chamber Orchestra – review
Three's a crowd-pleaser as Kaufmann, Terfel and Gheorghiu vie with tumultuous applause in Tosca, writes Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

16, Jul, 2011 @11:07 PM

Article image
The week in classical: Fidelio; London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vänskä – review
Lise Davidsen triumphs in the Royal Opera’s bristling new production of Beethoven’s opera

Fiona Maddocks

07, Mar, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Don Giovanni; LSO/Pappano: Peter Maxwell Davies Symphony No 10 – review

Visual overload swamps Royal Opera's new Don Giovanni. And it's a top 10th from Peter Maxwell Davies, writes Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

09, Feb, 2014 @12:06 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Tosca; Orchestra of Santa Cecilia/Pappano; Igor Levit – review
Bryn Terfel’s terrifying Scarpia is the main draw in the Royal Opera’s latest Tosca. Elsewhere, Igor Levit is in total command

Fiona Maddocks

02, Jun, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Macbeth; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Scottish Chamber Orchestra – review
Russian superstar Anna Netrebko doesn’t disappoint, with a blazing Lady Macbeth for the Royal Opera. And Robin Ticciati bows out in unforgettable style

Fiona Maddocks

01, Apr, 2018 @6:29 AM