Last night, the Salzburg Festival staged Il trittico, the opera by Puccini—well, three operas, a trio of one-acters. (Trittico means “triptych.”) Those operas are Il tabarro, or The Cloak. Suor Angelica, meaning Sister Angelica. And Gianni Schicchi. Signor Schicchi is the main character, plucked from Dante.
That is the order in which the operas have routinely been given, to my knowledge: Tabarro, Angelica, Schicchi. The first two are tragedies (big-time, although Angelica has religious redemption, along with tragedy). And Schicchi? A delightful, ingenious, rollicking comedy.
It’s natural to end with Schicchi—for that is your comic relief, your dessert. But in Salzburg? Their order was Schicchi, Tabarro, Angelica. I thought this was peculiar and, indeed, wrong. But I had a second thought—about which, more in due course.
Asmik Grigorian was the soprano in all three operas. This brilliant singing actress from Lithuania is one of the brightest lights in opera right now. In recent seasons, she has scored great successes in Salzburg with Salome and Elektra (both of which are Strauss operas). In the pit on those occasions was Franz Welser-Möst, the Austrian maestro who is the longtime music director of the Cleveland Orchestra.
And he was in the pit for Trittico last night, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra—as well as the stage—before him. In Gianni Schicchi, he was very stylish. The comedy bustled. The cacophony was clearly delineated, if you will accept a seeming contradiction. Every part was clear and neat (and often puckish). Puccini tells the story of Gianni Schicchi in the orchestra, as well as through the singing actors. And the VPO, under Welser-Möst . . . told it.
The production—of Schicchi and the other two—was in the hands of Christof Loy, the veteran German, and a Salzburg Festival veteran, too. Schicchi was literally LOL. People laughed out loud, just as they should. (For once, the audience was laughing in sympathy with a production, not in derision of it.)
In the title role was Misha Kiria, a Georgian baritone. He twinkled and schemed, in true Schicchi fashion, and he sang well, too. In the part of Rinuccio was Alexey Neklyudov, a young Russian tenor. He sang freshly and pleasingly, though it was hard to hear him, in the Great Festival Hall, with the VPO.
It is the privilege of the soprano to sing the great hit of Gianni Schicchi, “O mio babbino caro.” Asmik Grigorian was not sweet, I would say. Not melting. But she was effective—and she did the job.
Hers is not a big, big soprano voice—it is more on the lyrical side—but it has a highly valuable quality: it penetrates. Grigorian used this penetration to splendid effect as Giorgetta in Il tabarro. Also, she moves athletically, or like a dancer, across the stage. This, too, proved very helpful.
You were watching a drama, as well as listening to an opera.
Giorgetta’s lover, Luigi, was portrayed by Joshua Guerrero, a Mexican tenor. Or is he? That’s what Salzburg’s program said: “Mexican tenor.” Other sources, including Wikipedia, say that he is an American, born in Las Vegas. In any case, he is a true romantic tenor—yet, here I go again: the voice was a size too small, at least for this house, with this orchestra.
How about Giorgetta’s husband, Michele? He was portrayed by Roman Burdenko, a Russian baritone. Michele is a complicated character. He is not one-dimensional. He is brutish (indeed, a murderer). He is also tender, and torn. Burdenko put across the fullness of the character, the tragedy of the character. A memorable portrayal.
In the pit, Franz Welser-Möst loaded Il tabarro with verismo passion. Or rather, Puccini did, and Welser-Möst brought it out. If you have thought of this conductor as a buttoned-down Austrian, merely—last night proved you wrong.
Now we get to Suor Angelica. Karita Mattila, the veteran Finnish soprano, a star of recent decades, was the aunt (the wicked princess-aunt). Did you ever think you would hear Mattila as a contralto? That’s what she sounded like. And she was near spellbinding.
Just as a side note: she seemed a head taller than Suor Angelica, i.e., Asmik Grigorian. Through the years, Mattila sometimes seemed a head taller than her tenors. And than her accompanists. I remember that she patted one guy on the head, like a dog.
In the title role, Grigorian delivered a tour de force. Pardon the cliché, but it’s true. From vocal, musical, theatrical, and psychological points of view, she was right-on. Her Sister Angelica was absolutely devastating. Taking her bows, Grigorian seemed overcome with emotion.
So, was it right to end Il trittico with Suor Angelica? You could argue the case, yes—if that opera is going to be so devastating. It would be hard to follow such a performance. And yet, Gianni Schicchi has no doubt followed a lot of great Suor Angelicas. (And you get an intermission between the two.)
Salzburg’s order was comedy, tragedy, tragedy. Could they have done tragedy, comedy, tragedy, still ending with Angelica? Yes.
We could continue this discussion—but the bottom line is that Il trittico was done proud—very proud—in Mozart’s little town last night.