Huge credit must go to director Glynis Leyshon and set and costume designer Pam Johnson for solving one of the chief difficulties Il trittico presents (especially for a smaller company working with the smallest opera stage in the country): how do you move from Il tabarro, set on a barge on the Seine in 1910, to Suor Angelica, set in a convent near Siena in the 17th century, to Gianni Schiechi, set in Florence in 1299? You get clever, that's how.
Leyshon's first move was to place all three operas in one place, Paris, and one year, 1918--the year of Il trittico's premiere at Metropolitan Opera, which Puccini had planned to attend but couldn't due to the recent Armistice and the very real danger of mines in the Atlantic. The lingering effects of war pervade this staging, with injured soldiers quietly appearing in all three stories. Together with Johnson, Leyshon then devised a set where a realistically rendered barge sat stage front, with a sidewalk separating it from a lovely old stone building that, it becomes clear, is the exterior of a convent hospital (cheers greeted the reveal of the convent's dazzlingly sunlit interior as Suor Angelica began). For the third opera, a troupe of commedia dell'arte performers arrive at the hospital to cheer up the inmates with their play, Gianni Schicchi. The transitions are seamless, logical, and effective, with scenes of daily life fluttering in the background of each piece.
Even more credit has to go to a cast willing to learn multiple roles that they may never sing again--Il trittico has not been performed in Canada in 50 years, and may not be again any time soon. By singing in at least two, and in some cases three, of the operas, the cast made this masterpiece both affordable to mount and a perfect showcase for their own considerable talents.
While all the principals were terrific, soprano Aviva Fortunata emerged as a major star. In Il tabarro she sang Giorgetta, wife of barge owner Michele (Todd Thomas). Driven into the arms of Michele's dockhand Luigi (Adam Luther) by despair over the death of her young son, she brought beautiful tone and richness as well as believable chemistry with both men. As Sister Angelica, born to aristocracy but banished to a convent after giving birth to a I boy out of wedlock seven years earlier, she broke my heart. Fortunata's round, sumptuous rendition of "Senza mamma," sung after Angelica learns of her son's death two years before, should forever be in her concert repertoire. As Nella, one of the scheming relatives in Gianni Schicchi, Fortunata may not have been front-and-centre, but her skill for physical comedy was clear.
Heroic baritone Todd Thomas also shone in his two roles. As Michele, he offered vocal heft and menacing presence. Yet he also made clear that he too was fatally damaged by the loss of his son which, combined with grief over his wife's betrayal, leads him to commit murder. As Gianni Schicchi, Thomas gave an equally energetic and committed performance as the (almost) lovable rogue who steals an inheritance right under the noses of a family who can't wait to get their greedy hands on it.
Other highlights included tenor Adam Luther as an ardent and lyrical Luigi in Il tabarro, while soprano Lara Ciekiewicz deftly handled "O mio babbino caro," that famous, meltingly beautiful soprano aria that sits in the middle of the Marx-Brothers-like hijinks of the rest of Gianni Schicchi. Megan Latham calls herself a mezzo, but she brought true contralto depths to the Principessa, Sister Angelica s aunt, who not only banished her to the convent but also sealed her fate: after the Principessa pitilessly informs her niece that her son is dead, Angelica kills herself, but not before a miracle occurs. And what a miracle it was!
Startling in its beauty and unapologetic in its emotion, Leyshon and Johnson divined a way to have Angelica experience a vision of the Virgin Mary, who magically emerged from a high convent window. By combining great direction and design along with some really superb singing and an orchestra at the top of its game under Artistic Director Timothy Vernon--POV created what might be the best thing it has ever done. At least so far.
Caption: The Gianni Schicchi ensemble in POV's Il tritico