It figured that when the fearless Berkeley Opera turned to Puccini, they weren’t going to do one of the big three fan favorites. Its choice was Il Trittico (The Trilogy, 1918), a triple bill of one-acters, the less favored members, Il Tabarro (The Cloak), and Suor Angelica together with the more popular, comic, Gianni Schicchi. Saturday’s audience at the Julia Morgan Theater was rewarded with uniformly strong singing, and exceptionally high musical values for a local opera company.
Once again, artistic director and Berkeley Opera workhorse Jonathan Khuner deserves credit for the project’s success. He also did a triple, an operatic hat trick, functioning as stage director, musical director and conductor (not to mention rehearsal accompanist.) If he avoided an innovative staging approach to these operas, it is because so much of their power resides in small, everyday details, especially in the first two works. As Puccini himself wrote, he was inspired by “great sorrow in little souls.”
Il Tabarro is Puccini’s real verismo opera, a detached view of life among the lower classes. Set on a river barge docked in the Seine at Paris, it features a love triangle—Michele, the barge owner, his vaguely dissatisfied wife Giorgetta, and her lover, Luigi, a longshoreman. It all ends in murder—surprise! The stagey finale may be a bit over-the-top for modern audiences, its horror that of the comic book variety. But the dominant feeling the opera provokes is the sense of weariness and melancholy of life on the river. Puccini’s score is terse and gripping, often harmonically adventurous, and there is little of that enveloping lyricism the composer is famous for. Only Giorgetta’s hymn to the Parisian suburb where she was born sounds like the Puccini of, say, La Boheme.
Puccini brought the Seine into play as a character in this opera, and the “river music” runs through the whole first half. The production complemented this effect beautifully with Jeremy Knight’s projections and Robert Anderson’s lighting design, which created a slow sunset and moonrise over the river, with Notre Dame Cathedral in the background and even a few automobile headlights moving across a bridge. In an arty effect, the murder is lit by moonlight reflecting off of the water.
John Minagro, physically thin and almost spectral, played Michele with tight-lipped evenness early on, his emotions held in check. When the character opened up, and the anguish and rage came pouring out, Minagro made the change seem natural and released the full, stentorian power of his bass-baritone; the effect, as he worked into a despairing, murderous rage, was a little terrifying.
As Giorgetta, Duana Demus gave a full-blooded vocal performance with resonant low notes, and a steady, open-toned top register. She had a fine understanding of phrasing and varied her vocal delivery with the dramatic situation. Benjamin Bonger, as Luigi, was a little less flexible, but he showed a clear, well-placed tenor, singing the part without much effort. Among the uniformly well-cast supporting players, Patrice Houston rates special mention for her brightly comic portrayal of Frugola, the wife of one of the longshoremen. Only a singer with an excellent ear for pitch can make it through the chromatics of Frugola’s aria; Houston sang it well, while staying in character.
Suor Angelica’s sentimental story fits more with the familiar Puccini. Set in a 17th century convent, the plot concerns Sister Angelica, who has been cut off from her wealthy family as a result of having borne an illegitimate child. Receiving a visit from her aunt, a Princess, she learns that the child is dead; grieving, she drinks poison, but is saved from damnation by the intercession of the Virgin Mary who appears to the dying woman in a vision.
Whatever you think about the opera and the slightly bogus religiosity of the ending (which was done literally, through projections), be prepared to change your mind. Jillian Khuner’s electrifying portrayal of the title character was totally real and believable. Every word, every gesture carried conviction; the scream she emitted when Angelica learns of the death of her child was harrowing, her subsequent transfiguration beautifully detailed. And her singing, as always, was incandescent.
As the stone-hearted Princess, Heather McFadden exploited a solid lower register and her imposing height to bring authority to the character. Playing off Jillian Khuner’s intensity, she rose to the challenge in her set piece and their whole dialogue struck home.
Like the previous opera, Angelica’s first part is a series of scene-setting vignettes, which director Khuner didn’t sufficiently distinguish or separate so that, as often is the case, they passed in a blur for the audience. Fabienne Wood sang Suor Genovieffa’s wistful aria “Soave signor mio” so sweetly and with such pure tone, that it stood out.
The evening’s finale, the farce Gianni Schicchi, offers “Oh mio babbuino caro” (a.k.a. “the Room With a View song”) as an enticement to come back after the second intermission. It was touchingly sung here by Ayelet Cohen, with thrilling natural vibrato. In the story, the wealthy Donati clan snubs Gianni Schicchi, an entrepreneur, forbidding the young Rinuccio to marry Gianni’s daughter, Lauretta. They soon discover, however, that they need Gianni’s cunning, when the patriarch of the clan dies, leaving all his money to a monastery. Gianni takes full advantage of this turn of events, allowing the lovers to marry.
The part of Schicchi is a comic gold mine, and Jo Vincent Parks was an energetic and entertaining presence. Sometimes he sat on his own laughs by trying too hard, but he showed a gift for physical comedy. His diction was excellent, his vocal sound commanding but unforced. Of the other characters, Brian Thorsett, as Rinuccio, displayed a clear, penetrating lyric tenor, Katherine Daniel, playing cousin Zita, and William Pickersgill, as cousin Simone, were hilarious, and both sang well. Nicolas Aliaga was delightfully goofy as the doctor and the notary, and Wayne Wong obviously enjoyed himself as Betto, the drunken brother-in-law.
The orchestra, playing Bryan Higgins’ ingenious orchestral reduction, was in fine form, despite a couple of harmless flubs. It wanted a few more violins for some of the climactic moments, but the ones that were there played their hearts out. Jonathan Khuner’s reading of the score was alive to dramatic nuances and was musically satisfying.
The Planet is pleased to be able to print this review courtesy of San Francisco Classical Voice, a non-profit organization which offers a full menu of reviews and criticism of Bay Area classical music performances on their website, sfcv.org.