Midge Woolsey, WQXR Host
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Quick: name the three one-act operas included in Puccini’s Il Trittico. Give up? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. No, we're not talking about Pagliacci – that’s by Leoncavallo. Cavalleria Rusticana isn’t one of them either – that’s by Mascagni.
The reason you might have trouble naming all three is that even though Puccini fought hard to keep them together as a trio, the individual pieces are often performed separately or paired with one-acts by other composers.
But, F. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of Opera News, contends that the three works are most effective when they play together. As proof he cites the 2007 Jack O’Brien production of Il Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera as “one of the supreme achievements of the past ten or fifteen years in any opera house."
“Puccini wanted to explore three different styles of opera,” said Driscoll. “The tragedy of Il Tabarro, the sentimental religious drama of Suor Angelica and the comedy of Gianni Schicchi. They’re united because they’re all concerned in one way or another with death.” He goes on to say that each one of the operas is a miniature masterpiece but that the final moment in Gianni Schicchi — when Schicchi steps forward to address us directly pointing us to the future and reminding us of the power of youth and true love – “serves as the best ending for all three.”
Puccini’s Il Trittico had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918 – just one month after the armistice was signed bringing World War I to a close. Puccini wasn’t at the premiere because he was afraid to travel overseas so soon after the war. As a result, he didn’t see the triptych in performance until the Italian premiere the following year.
Driscoll credits the war with the mixed reception that Il Trittico received. Only Gianni Schicchi was an immediate hit and Driscoll cites several reasons for this. First, one of the greatest baritones of the day — Giuseppe de Luca — was a wonderful Schicchi. The opera features the hit tune, “O mio babbino caro." It’s very funny. And, there were lots of very good performers "salted in the cast of greedy relatives."
F. Paul Driscoll on the Met premiere
British soprano Florence Easton was the first to sing “O mio babbino caro” at the 1918 world premiere of Il Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera. Listen to a performance here.
WWI deeply affected the world’s perception of death. And the fact that Gianni Schicchi is the "only one of the operas where death is allowed to laugh at itself is significant. That was something people were ready for," Driscoll says. But, the tragedy of Il Tabarro and the religious intensity of Suor Angelica – both coupled with the death of a child – were not as well received.
Today, Gianni Schicchi continues to be the most popular opera in Puccini’s Il Trittico and “O mio babbino caro” is one of the most famous and beloved arias of all time. But all three of the one-acts are considered to be first-tier Puccini. Suor Angelica was Puccini’s personal favorite and Angelica’s big aria “Senza Mamma” is still a powerful show stopper. And though he enjoys each for its unique effects, Driscoll tells us that it’s the emotional richness and complexity of Il Tabarro that appeals most to him and makes him appreciate it more and more with each new experience.
Extra: Driscoll on verismo in Il Trittico
Extra: Two members of the original cast of Il Trittico - Claudia Muzio and Kathleen Howard sing a duet from another ‘watery’ opera
“We all know what it’s like to have a grief that can’t find its way into words. It’s almost impossible to take that emotional set and put it to music. But, Puccini does this brilliantly in Il Tabarro.” — F. Paul Driscoll
Il Tabarro takes place on a barge in the Seine River in France. The barge owner, Michele, and his wife, Giorgetta, have lost their only child. The unspeakable pain of the loss has driven them apart. Michele now suspects that his young wife no longer loves him. We soon learn that it’s true. Giorgetta is in love with one of the hired hands – a young, passionate man named Luigi. Luigi tells Giorgetta that he is willing to kill Michele if that’s what it takes to have her. Through an unexpected twist of fate, in the end it is Luigi who dies at the hand of Michele.
Il tabarro is the cloak which once tenderly protected Michele’s wife and child. Michele uses the same cloak at the end of the opera to wrap Luigi’s dead body.
Driscoll on Il Tabarro
“I think he (Puccini) had a great deal of respect and affection for women. It’s no surprise to me that this opera with an all female cast was his favorite.” — F. Paul Driscoll
Suor Angelica takes place in a convent in Siena, Italy at the end of the 17th century.
Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) is from a rich noble family. She had a child out of wedlock and was sent to the convent to repent for her sins. Angelica’s rich Aunt – the Principessa – visits the convent to get Angelica’s signature on a document renouncing Angelica’s inheritance and assigning it all to her sister who is soon to be married. The Principessa also coldly informs Angelica that her child died of a fever two years ago. Angelica is filled with despair and resolves to take her own life. In doing so she realizes that she is committing a mortal sin. But, as she dies, the Virgin Mary miraculously appears and her young son runs to embrace her.
Driscoll on Suor Angelica
Driscoll on Renata Scotto as Angelica
Opera in Brief Extra - F. Paul Driscoll on staging Angelica’s death
“Great comedies always take a big issue and make us laugh about it... I think it’s a work of absolute genius!” — F. Paul Driscoll
Gianni Schicchi takes place in Florence at the turn of the 14th century. Buoso Donati has died and much to the horror of his relatives has left his entire fortune to a monastery. A man named Gianni Schicchi has been brought in to problem solve. Schicchi devises a plan whereby he tricks the doctor into thinking that Buoso is not actually dead yet. He then tricks the notary into writing a new will. And, finally, he tricks the family by dictating the new will leaving Buoso’s most prized possessions to himself!
Gianni Schicchi’s subplot is the source of one of the most beloved arias of all time – "O mio babbino caro." It is the song that Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta, sings to her father be+gging him to allow her to marry Buoso Donati’s young cousin Rinuccio.
Driscoll on Gianni Schicchi
Driscoll on his favorite performance of ‘O mio babbino caro’
Hear Montserrat Caballe singing "O mio babbino caro":