First, darkness; next, grief and spiritual transcendence; finally, ribald laughter. For his penultimate work, Puccini designed a trio of short one-act operas, Il Trittico, to take his audience on an extraordinary, disconnected emotional journey in one evening, from a bitter revenge tragedy to a brilliant farce. Fulham Opera have picked the two most popular elements of Il Trittico, the malevolent Il Tabarro and the riotous Gianni Schicchi, to create a supremely entertaining evening which balances passionate verismo drama with wildly irreverent wit in true Italian style. Like many other opera companies, they leave out Puccini’s favourite of the three, the uplifting and religious Suor Angelica (always the least performed, given its rather niche appeal, though I must admit I love it too).
Director Fiona Williams has created two unique productions in the welcoming space of St John’s Church, each distinct in atmosphere, with the simple staging characteristic of Fulham Opera. Clever touches from Williams add poignancy to heighten drama: as the unhappily married couple Giorgetta and Michele bicker on their boat about jealousy, three women nurse babies on the shore, their glowing maternal contentment a clear indication of what this broken marriage is really missing. Conducted by Michael Thrift, the small but sonorous orchestra fill St John’s Church with Il Tabarro’s mysterious, dark tones: it feels deeply contemporary, with sinuous lines and sour harmonies creating a brooding, desperate mood. Excavating the psychology of an extra-marital affair, Puccini is at his most passionate, with his music and Adami’s libretto full of erotic charge: “Give me your mouth… I want to hide your glorious body from the world.” Waves of guilt and pain overwhelm husband and wife; their occasional, poignant attempts to reconcile are badly timed and badly received, while their actual sincerity remains intriguingly opaque.
Mike Dewis is lyrical and moving as the surly, suspicious husband Michele, wracked with grief for his dead marriage, seething with anger at his wife’s infidelity. Dewis is particularly strong in his murder and fight scenes, showing real aggression. Roberto Abate is intense and masterful as Giorgetta’s stevedore lover, Luigi: despite illness, Abate achieved dazzling volume and power in his “Hai ben ragione” aria, giving a superb performance in which his acting never faltered. Sizzling on-stage chemistry between Abate and Wyn Williams ensures all the love scenes are on fire; the constant contrast between Giorgetta’s passion for Luigi, and her coldness towards Michele, comes across with great pathos. Mari Wyn Williams is an affecting Giorgetta, who finds that “It’s so difficult to be happy;” as her unresolved grief eats away at her, Wyn Williams conveys a woman whose life and emotions are in freefall. Abate and Wyn Williams also make an attractive pairing as the hippy couple Gherardo and Nella Donati in Gianni Schicchi.
The star of the smaller roles in Il Tabarro has to be Amy J. Payne’s memorable Frugola, a well-sketched old woman who massages her man with rum, dotes on her cat, picks up flotsam and jetsam from the city streets to sell, and dreams of a little house in the country: we learn more about Frugola in five minutes than we learn about Mimì in the whole of La bohème. Honourable mention must also go to Michael Bradley, charming as the song vendor and passing midnight lover; listen out for Bradley’s canzonetta, in which Puccini playfully smuggles one of his most famous stories as a popular ballad. Elsewhere, Puccini samples himself musically with wry humour, without detracting from Il Tabarro’s harrowing climax. A larger cloak would, however, have allowed more visual impact in the all-important final tableau.
The orchestra cheerfully changes gear after the interval for Nick Fletcher, conducting Gianni Schicchi with glorious zest. The opening scene of fake family grief is hilarious, as the anxious Donati clan gather around the deathbed of their wealthy cousin Buoso, who has disinherited them all and left his fortune, his farms, his house and “the best mule in all Tuscany” to a monastery, much to family horror. Fiona Williams sets just the right tone on stage as the bereaved relations first try to outdo themselves in ostentatious grief, then begin to show true panic and desperation as Buoso’s will is discovered, only to be plunged into very real despair. Enter Gianni Schicchi (Oliver Gibbs), a newcomer from the country, generally snubbed by Florentine nobles like the Donati, but whose lateral and not-so-legal approach to solving problems could be their salvation.
Schicchi is at first unwilling to assist as a result of their snobbery, but his daughter Lauretta (an enchanting Rosanne Havel) wants to marry young Rinuccio Donati (an appealing Edward Hughes, previously the drunkard Tinca in Il Tabarro). After pleading with him using the gorgeous “O mio babbino caro,” which Ravel sings with lyrical freshness, Lauretta persuades her father to form his plan to save the family – and, perhaps, help himself along the way. The story comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, although Forzano’s libretto feels much more like Bocaccio in its timelessly Italian humour. The whole opera is something of a loveletter to Italian families and the Italian spirit of survival: and, memorably, it contains an absolutely open loveletter to Florence in the form of Rinuccio’s beautiful folksong, “Firenze è come un albero fiorito”, soaked in campanilismo (that particularly Italian combination of homesickness and sense of the utter superiority of one’s own city). Schicchi himself plays on this further in his warning aria, “Prima un avertimento!”, when he imagines the punishment they will all face if they are caught faking Buoso’s will: “Addio, Firenze, addio cielo divino, io ti saluti con questo moncherino…” [Farewell, Florence, farewell heavenly sky, I wave goodbye to you with this stump…]
Oliver Gibbs is charismatic, exciting and vibrant in the title role, bringing the schemer Gianni to life in a hugely enjoyable performance. Schicchi is a demanding role, both in himself and when pretending to be Buoso, calling for the baritone to manufacture a second “aged” tenor voice for prolonged periods; it must be a significant vocal strain, but Gibbs never flags, tirelessly musical. Lindsay Bramley is fabulous as Buoso’s furious widow Zita, peering furiously at us, poking the corpse vindictively with her walking stick when she thinks she’s unobserved. Henry Grant Kerswell (also a successful Talpa in Il Tabarro) is delightful as Simone, sometime Mayor of Fucecchio, deliciously camp at the most unexpected and hilarious moments. Gemma Morsley’s glamourpuss Ciesca adds a touch of Hollywood (or fashion-forward Milan) to the stage. Simon Grange, doubling as duped doctor and duped lawyer, sings with open clarity and rich tone. All the smaller roles are played with gusto.
Fulham Opera’s infectiously funny production of Puccini’s third element makes the most of its natural comedy. You may gasp, and you might well cry in Il Tabarro, but you will definitely laugh in Gianni Schicchi. The shift from tragedy to farce, both so intense, makes for an exhilarating evening. There is both pathos and bathos in the fact that, as the stevedore Luigi sings desolately in Il Tabarro: “We have to fight for everything, and we are robbed of it all.”
Until 29 March 2015 at Fulham Opera: click here to book tickets