A triumphant 'Il Trittico'

09.17.09
Patrick Summers, Patricia Racette
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Call it a trifecta, or a hat trick, or a triple whammy.  Whatever the terminology, soprano Patricia Racette tackled all three soprano roles in Puccini's "Il Trittico" at the San Francisco Opera on Tuesday night and emerged triumphant.   What, you thought it would turn out differently?   No, the news out of the War Memorial Opera House wasn't Racette's success at hitting for the Puccini cycle, which couldn't have surprised anyone who has witnessed her magnificent career since her days as an Adler Fellow. It was that everything about this tremendous production - every piece of casting, every directorial stroke, every musical gesture large and small - was worthy of her.

Let's not mince words: This "Trittico" is the finest offering of General Director David Gockley's tenure to date.

Astonishingly, it also marks the first time since 1952 that the company has done Puccini's trio of one-act operas in its entirety. And although the quality is far from consistent, this production - smartly directed by James Robinson and conducted with sweeping lyricism by Patrick Summers - makes a potent case for hearing all three pieces in a single evening.  

It's thrilling to hear how completely these works complement one another, dividing up the available terrain of Italian opera. "Il Tabarro," the first and weakest of the three, is pure verismo melodrama, a brusque tale of jealousy and murder among the boatmen of the Seine.   Tragedy is the province of "Suor Angelica," whose title character is immured in a convent to atone for the birth of an illegitimate child she has never seen. And "Gianni Schicchi," Puccini's only true comedy, is so funny and sharp-edged that it makes one regret the lack of any others.  

The three soprano roles are equally diverse, and Racette modulated the quality and tone of her radiant, muscular sound accordingly. The title role in "Suor Angelica" is the real soprano showcase, a virtuoso exercise in both soaring vocalism and emotional specificity, and Racette rose superbly to the challenge.
The other two assignments are less central to their respective operas, and here Racette blended skillfully into the texture of each performance. As Giorgetta, the unfaithful wife in "Tabarro," she conveyed a sort of peevish urgency that spoke of sexual frustration, and she brought grace and wit to "O mio babbino caro," the famous show-stopper that was her one real task in "Schicchi."

The great baritone Paolo Gavanelli returned in two key roles, as the cuckolded bargeman in "Tabarro" and as Gianni Schicchi, and both times he commanded the stage. Brandon Jovanovich brought his bright, lustrous tenor and enormous sex appeal to Luigi, the lover in "Tabarro," and contralto Ewa Podles made a magisterial company debut as the stony-hearted Princess in "Suor Angelica."

Other standouts among the three ensemble casts included the gifted young contralto Meredith Arwady, in a double-barreled company debut, bass Andrea Silvestrelli, tenor David Lomelí, and company stalwarts Catherine Cook, Thomas Glenn and Bojan Knezevic.

The production, with sets by Allen Moyer and costumes by Bruno Schwengl, is a nearly unalloyed delight. Following the theme of comprehensive variety, the settings move from a purely realistic "Tabarro" to a modernized "Suor Angelica" (the ugly fluorescent lighting here is the evening's only real misstep) to a wildly surreal "Schicchi."