The Metropolitan Opera’s 2006–07 season ended with a telling contrast. Broadway director Jack O’Brien’s setting of Puccini’s Il Trittico—which airs on PBS tonight, in what will truly be must-see TV—stayed faithful to the music and to the composer’s dramatic intentions, creating an evening of overpowering theatrical intensity. Choreographer Mark Morris’s rendering of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, on the other hand, ignored the stylistic mandates in the score and produced a pedestrian, sometimes silly, visual spectacle that rarely matched the music’s greatness. The Met’s aesthetic future depends on which production style prevails.

Puccini’s Il Trittico (“The Triptych”) is a collection of three short one-act operas; it makes a strong case for limiting every opera to a single act, if the results would match Puccini’s accomplishment here. Each one-hour opera is a marvel of compression and dramatic tension. Every note expresses an emotion; every emotion drives the plots to their inexorable conclusions. Various hypotheses have been offered about what unifies the three stories—the presence of death, for example, or a connection to Dante’s Divine Comedy (the third opera, Gianni Schicchi, derives from a few lines in the Inferno); no theory is particularly persuasive. The musical tie is clearer: a dark wind blows through all three operas, rising from their complex and sophisticated harmonies. The best course, given the remarkable musical outcome, is simply to be grateful that Puccini set himself the formal challenge of composing three short one-acts.

Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”), the first opera of the series, tells the story of a fatal affair between the wife of a barge owner in Paris and one of his stevedores. A restless, haunting theme rises from the first notes of the overture and flows through the rest of the work, suggesting at once the Seine’s tides and the pull of fate. As in the other two operas, the action unfolds in real time, without pause or change of location; there is no escape from the desires and hatreds that propel the protagonists to their tragic ends. And the music through which those feelings are expressed simply astounds. When Luigi, the stevedore, cries out in a frenzy of jealousy that he would carve a “jewel of blood” for Giorgetta, the owner’s wife—presumably from her husband’s chest (“Folle di gelosia!”), the horns, bass strings, and timpani pound out his anguish in a crescendo of terrifying grandeur.

The intensity of this moment is almost unbearable, but Puccini follows it with equally wrenching music: the painfully poignant melody with which Giorgetta’s husband Michele pleads for her to love him again (“Perché, perché non m’ami più?”). Michele is the most moving and complex character in Il Tabarro; Puccini makes him caring toward his workers—including the man cuckolding him—sensitive to the beauty of the descending night, and gentle to his distant wife. A sighing, delicately syncopated theme in the strings accompanies his yearning for his wife’s affection, even as a dark pulse of threat and foreboding beats throughout their scene together.

After Giorgetta rejects Michele’s appeal to remember “altre notti, altri cieli ed altre lune” (“other nights, other skies, other moons”), she retires to the inside of the barge, awaiting her tryst with Luigi, and Michele’s plea dies out in silence. A brief pause, and he spits out in disgust: “Whore!” (“Sgualdrina!”), ending his plaintive lyricism for the remainder of the opera. Soon, Luigi returns to Michele’s barge, mistaking his boss’s lit pipe for the match that Giorgetta uses to summon him for their trysts. Michele catches him, and after forcing him to confess his love for his wife, strangles him. The opera ends with a satisfyingly ghoulish device that gives the opera its title.

In a pre-premiere discussion, set designer Douglas Schmidt described the guidelines that the Met had provided the production team for Il Trittico: “The Met made it clear that it was not interested in a trendy production, but one that could stand the test of time. We didn’t want to get caught up in [directorial] fashions but rather to give the opera loving care and a realistic approach.” That is exactly what Schmidt and director Jack O’Brien did; their work seemed to open a window directly onto the operas themselves. In Il Tabarro, Michele’s barge looms across the stage in the silver waters of the Seine, as the sky above it turns from sunset red to nighttime black. On the quay next to the barge, 1920s working-class Paris ambles by, while among the barge’s owners and workers, caught up in marital infidelities and class resentments, passions seethe.

The evening’s greatest vocal and dramatic performance came from the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, the only singer to appear in all three operas. Blythe’s voice is rich, deep, and seemingly effortless. As La Frugola, the cheerfully eccentric wife of one of Michele’s stevedores, she provided momentary refuge from the destructive emotions roiling around her, displaying her scavenged fripperies and praising her tabby cat. The other singers gave solid accounts of their roles. Like Blythe, Russian soprano Maria Guleghina, who sang Giorgetta, has a startlingly powerful and direct voice; she conveyed the claustrophobia of a woman living in a cramped barge with a man she no longer loves. If the baritone Frederick Burchinal, filling in for Juan Pons as Michele, lacked the role’s full measure of pathos, his singing was serviceable enough. The tenor Salvatore Licitra was appropriately tightly coiled as Luigi.

Blythe’s transformation in the next opera, Suor Angelica, was a dramatic coup. She sang La Zia Principessa, the heartless aunt of a young noblewoman, Angelica, who had been sent to a convent seven years earlier in punishment for having given birth to an illegitimate child. The princess comes to the convent to secure the transfer of Angelica’s inheritance to Angelica’s sister; though the young nun—sung somewhat stridently by Barbara Frittoli—is desperate for a sign of affection, the princess responds only with cold condemnation of Angelica’s past sin. Blythe’s entrance on stage, ramrod-straight and staring straight ahead, was a shock after her carefree Frugola, as was the sinister quality in her voice.

Again, O’Brien’s staging of Suor Angelica reflected his fidelity to the composer’s intentions. The opera ends with a miracle, and O’Brien obliges. Angelica poisons herself after learning of her son’s death, then immediately begs in terror for forgiveness for her suicide. A heavenly choir announces her redemption. According to Puccini’s stage directions, the convent’s chapel fills with light and the Holy Virgin appears on its threshold with Angelica’s dead son, a blond boy dressed in white. Some directors have staged this scene as the dying Angelica’s hallucination, but the Met version takes Puccini’s mandates seriously. “Our responsibility was to tastefully and genuinely create a miracle,” O’Brien said. “It’s maudlin only if you don’t honor your commitment to the piece.” Some viewers may find the Catholic literalism kitsch, but there is no evidence that Puccini did, and that’s where the question should end. If a director doesn’t like the mandates in the score, he should stage a different opera.

Met patrons who left after Suor Angelica because of the late hour made one of the biggest mistakes of their lives. The last opera in Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, is Puccini’s only comedy, and it makes you cry out in despair that there are not more. Puccini’s irony is as knowing as Cole Porter’s or Rodgers and Hart’s. To the question “Can music be funny?,” Gianni Schicchi resoundingly answers in the affirmative.

Gianni Schicchi is a clever bourgeois in early Renaissance Florence who double-crosses an aristocratic family intent on defeating their dead relative’s will. The recently deceased man is laid out on his bed as the opera opens, surrounded by family members wailing in grief—until they learn that their kinsman left his estate to a monastery, rather than to them. Puccini renders every change in the relatives’ avaricious minds—from outrage at their lost inheritance, to fawning elation when Schicchi promises to restore it to them, and then back to even greater rage when he wills the estate to himself—with quicksilver agility and boundless inventiveness; the music leers, creeps, and thunders with rapidly shifting tempos and harmonies, though an urbane cool tonality pervades the work. Glorious contrapuntal chaos erupts when Schicchi and the family matriarch, Zita, trade insults about Zita’s greed and Schicchi’s relative penury (“Brava la Vecchia! Brava!”), while the opera’s young lovers (Schicchi’s daughter and Zita’s nephew) lament their diminished wedding prospects in classic Pucciniesque bathos. Beseeched by his daughter (in Puccini’s most famous and, arguably, tongue-in-cheek aria, “O Mio Babbino Caro”), Schicchi finally agrees to help her fiancé’s family wrest the inheritance from the monks. He vaunts the genius of his planned strategy in musical phrases so seductively triumphant (“Io, lo Schicchi”) as to stop one’s breathing. The all-female trio that croons to Schicchi in tight harmony as he changes into the dead man’s nightclothes (“Spogliati, bambolino” [“Get undressed, baby boy”]) matches The Boys from Syracuse’s “Sing for Your Supper” in sly wit.

O’Brien’s directing reached its apex in this last opera. His ensemble work was breathtakingly taut, showing the deft timing of a Marx Brothers routine. The family members moved like a flock of birds or a school of fish, held together by some invisible magnetic force. After Schicchi announces his plan—he will impersonate the deceased and dictate a new will in the family’s favor—each expectant relative brushes by him and promises sotto voce to give him a large cut if he designates the best goodies to the petitioner. This parade of studied nonchalance—a word dropped over the shoulder, another out of the side of the mouth—was a classic of comic gesture. O’Brien updated the setting to 1950s Italy, just 30 years after the opera was written, without any loss to the plot or music. The bedchamber of the deceased was hung with heavy Renaissance trappings, while the younger characters sported natty Italian fashion: a black hourglass suit, accessorized with a lilac ostrich hat and collar ruff, was particularly fetching. Blythe, in a shapeless widow’s housecoat as the calculating Zita, again excelled in voice and acting. Baritone Alessandro Corbelli was a cynical and deep-voiced Schicchi, whose basset-hound eyes and malleable, lined face contributed to his world-weary air.

Il Trittico premiered at the Met in 1918; since then, its components have usually been performed alone—or bizarrely paired with wholly unrelated works, such as Strauss’s Salome. Today’s Met patrons are fortunate to have this great work again available to them in its entirety. Asked in a pre-opening discussion what he wanted audiences to know about Il Trittico, O’Brien responded: “That Puccini did this for you. The opera was written for us. It’s the full range of what opera was meant to be; all we’ve done is wrap it up and put a bow on it.” At a time when directors often set themselves up as superior correctors of composers’ intentions, O’Brien’s enthusiasm and modesty are heartwarming. “Puccini’s knowledge, control, and insight into dramatic literature is staggering,” he said. “There’s not a bar of the music that is not dramatizable, if you are sensitive to what he is asking you to do. One is so stunned by the extraordinary range of his insight as a composer.”

Such justified love showed on the stage, backed up by the fleet and supple performance that James Levine drew from the orchestra. One left the house marveling at this too little-known masterpiece and grateful for the opportunity to have experienced it whole.

Mark Morris’s staging of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice had the opposite effect: it took one of the seminal works in the canon and nearly stripped it of grace. The Austrian Christoph Willibald Gluck rebelled against eighteenth-century opera conventions and launched a reform movement that ended with the dynamism of Il Trittico. In Gluck’s time, highly formalized arias took precedence over the forward motion of the opera’s plot; all dramatic development stopped as the soprano or castrato let fly a barrage of improvised vocal fireworks. Gluck wanted the music to serve the drama seamlessly and the drama to be unified with the music. It never would have occurred to him that a director could undermine both, but that is what Morris’s staging did.

Orfeo ed Euridice tells the Greek myth of the poet and musician Orpheus, whose songs can tame wild beasts. Orfeo is felled by grief after his bride Euridice dies, and Jove takes pity on him and invites him to retrieve her from the underworld. There is one condition: Orfeo may neither look at Euridice nor explain his averted glance as he leads her back to earth. Unable to withstand his wife’s grief at his apparent indifference, he looks back and she dies again. Gluck’s rendering of the tale is starkly simple; there are just three individual characters in the opera—Orfeo, Euridice, and Cupid; the all-important chorus shifts roles from the shepherds and nymphs who lament Euridice’s death, to the Furies who guard Hades, and finally to the Blessed Spirits in the Elysian Fields.

The hushed opening chorus is an overwhelming expression of sorrow, in measures as dignified as a requiem mass. Gluck’s music throughout retains Classical poise and restraint, even as it calls forth the mad dogs of Hell. But it was difficult to experience the work’s full profundity with the chorus tricked out like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Arrayed on three rows of a large industrial scaffold, each chorus member was costumed and made up as a historical figure, no matter how banal. Next to Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi were Liberace, John Lennon, Mae West, Hiawatha, and Mao. The chorus was supposed to be a “witness to history,” according to the designers, but the effect was as tacky as a wax museum. It is inconceivable that Mae West would sing Gluck’s finely-wrought dirges. Occasionally, Mark Twain, Karl Marx, or other animatronic wonders would jerk out their lower arms, matching the spasmodic movements of the dancers.

The visual spectacle on the stage below the chorus’s scaffold was no better. The opera’s dancers were dressed out of Old Navy, in hoodies, jeans, T-shirts, and tank tops, even as they moved to harmonies of courtly refinement. Not that Morris tried very hard to match his choreography to the spirit of the music. Rarely did his troupe’s gestures have any echo of Baroque elegance and precision; usually, the corps hopped and spun to silent music of its own. This being a Mark Morris production, several of the dance couples were same-sex.

It is certainly not mandatory, in Classical and Baroque operas, to costume performers in the fashions of the time; an abstract simplicity of dress would have served. But today’s adolescence-inspired casual wear does not belong in a Classical opera; behind the denim and T-shirt uniform lies a social revolution that demolished the world bodied forth in Gluck’s music. A body in sweat pants occupies a completely different universe from that of a body in tight-fitting breeches and silk stockings; it will move accordingly, freed from the code of courtly manners and hierarchy.

More than music of later eras, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music conjures up an entire aesthetic world. Updating operas from those periods to the present inevitably produces a distracting disjuncture between a production’s sounds and its visual images. Accordingly, it was a relief when the dancers left the stage and the chorus in their Disney costumes was hidden behind the set, since their garb was the most jarring. Countertenor David Daniels as Orfeo, dressed like a rock star in tight black denim, did not give as riveting a performance as audiences have come to expect from him, though his voice was always pleasing. The beautiful Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska was an impassioned Euridice; her clear ringing tones intertwined hauntingly with Daniels’s on the ascent from Hell, the high point of the production. Heidi Grant Murphy as Cupid was assigned the self-referential camp quotient; she descended on visible wires from the flies clad in a pink polo shirt over a long-underwear-type shirt and cargo pants, tiny cardboard wings flapping from her shoulders. She drew laughs as she mugged and pushed the noisy set around, though her bright and cheerful singing was beyond reproach.

If one thought of the production as a Mark Morris ballet with a soundtrack by Gluck, it was easier to bear. As an expression of Gluck’s masterpiece of Classical sensibility, however, it fell short. The beauty of the opera remained partly veiled. Still, compared to the directorial travesties in Europe, where opera is routinely subjected to the most grotesque sexual and political interventions, Morris’s gimmicks were easier to forgive.

Both Jack O’Brien and Mark Morris were commissioned by the Met’s previous general manager, Joseph Volpe. The Morris hire was an obvious one: the American dance world adulates him, and he has specialized in the Baroque and Classical repertoires. It is difficult to blame Volpe for the disappointing results. But in the future, current general manager Peter Gelb should make productions like Il Trittico his touchstone in his quest to bring “exciting” theatrical visions to the Met. Not all new productions need to be as sensuously realistic as the O’Brien-Schmidt endeavor, but they will be able to produce the elation that this Trittico did only by loving obedience to the spirit of the music.


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