Article by Robin Simon, 1997
Puccini had a tough time finding three one-act operas to create his Trittico (triptych). Only after the death in 1912 of his publisher – who was opposed to the whole idea – did he begin with the first part, Il Tabarro (‘The Cloak’), an adaptation of a melodramatic play he saw in Paris that year. It was another seven years before all three operas were first performed.
The delay is usually seen as evidence of Puccini’s notorious difficulty in coming to any decision. But the peculiar nature of the Trittico, and of the three unusual operas that make it up, shows that Puccini was more than ever his perfectionist self. He wanted each part to carry a precise weight within the whole. Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi are the most popular of the three today – Suor Angelica (‘Sister Angelica’) is rarely performed.
The subject of Il Tabarro is, on the face of it, fairly horrifying. The action is claustrophobically set aboard a moored barge in the Seine, and features adultery, jealousy and the strangulation of the lover by the husband. It ends with the final revelation of the lover’s corpse beneath the husband’s cloak – which the wife has just recalled with affection as her refuge in happier times. Strong stuff – as Puccini was aware. He described the original play, La Houppelande, as ‘almost, no, more than almost, Grand Guignol’ – in other words melodrama at its most melodramatic.
What separates melodrama from tragedy is its sentimentality, a play upon emotions upon a more superficial level, and sentimentality is the key to the two first parts of the triptych. In Tabarro one may gasp at the crude horror of the murder, but after all, Giorgetta, the female lead – it would be pushing it to call her a heroine – does not die. Instead, the victim is her somewhat good-for-nothing lover, who himself has contemplated doing away with the husband in gory terms:’…con gocce di sange fabbricarti un gioiello’ (‘I’ll make a ring for you with drops of blood’) are the words he sings to Giorgetta. The wronged husband, meanwhile, is far from a straightforward villain: he is just boring. The life he lives is too much like hard work for the girl he has married, who remembers with surprising intensity the delights of the Parisian suburb where she grew up. Her lover, it turns out, also comes from the same suburb of Belleville, and Tabarro is certainly the only opera to include a paean of praise to suburbia, their duet ‘Ma chi lascia il sobborgo vuol tornare…’ (But whoever leaves suburbia longs to return….’).
Sympathy of the kind that informs tragedy is absent from the ending of Tabarro: it is nothing like Rigoletto, for example. There is only a weepy feeling that things might have turned out better: precisely the limited emotions expressed by the two lovers themselves even at their most passionate. It might seem that this view of the opera is that of a world-weary writer at the end of the twentieth century who has lost touch with the deeper passions that such plots could plumb eighty years ago. That would be to reckon without Puccini’s plain hints at the way in which we should experience it – and also, crucially, the ways in which Tabarro fits into the triptych.
The triptych is very carefully balanced but within a surprisingly limited range of emotion. It does not, in its three components, move from tragedy to comedy, as is sometimes suggested, from murder in Tabarro to laughter in Schicchi. Instead, it moves from melodrama, through sentimental weepy – Suor Angelica – to near-farce. As Puccini so carefully planned it, we should remember that, although the triptych begins with murder and finishes with a deathbed scene (which takes up the entire opera of Schicchi), the point is that the atmosphere of each is to very different.
In between these two is the extraordinary Suor Angelica, full of singing nuns, which can appear even more preposterous to modern eyes than The Sound of Music. The death here is of an infant – to whom we are never introduced – which takes place off-stage before the action starts. Angelica’s suicide on hearing of her (illegitimate) child’s death becomes a matter for soupy religious celebration, as the opera ends with a miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary leading Angelica’s child by the hand…No wonder we only see two parts of the Trittico together these days.
The two parts that we tend to see in performance have a very different inflection, but both are equally suggestive of Puccini’s deliberate avoidance of cathartic extremes. It is significant that Gianni Schicchi steps out of character at the end of the whole triptych to ask forgiveness of the audience in ancient theatrical manner. The speech – he does not even sing the ending – brings to a conclusion not just his opera but the whole evening’s entertainment, during which the emotions have been tickled but never so fully engaged as they would be in full-blown tragedy or comedy.
The delicate balance is trimmed early on, in the middle of Tabarro, where it is not one of the protagonists who steps out of character but the composer himself. The device is more familiar in plays, where characters can pause to take the audience into their confidence: Richard III, for example, in Shakespeare’s play: “Plots I have laid…” and “Was ever a woman in such humour wooed….?; or even the Marx Brothers tying up the railway guard in a film, “this is the best gag in the whole movie.” The effect is deliberately to draw attention to the artificiality of the action. In opera, Mozart does it at the end of Don Giovanni when the musicians at the Don’s banquet for the Commendatore strike up a tune from his earlier opera Le Nozze di Figaro, and Leporello (who may well have taken to baritone lead in Le Nozze) stops the action to comment “I know that tune!”
Puccini does something similar in Il Tabarro when he has the ballad-seller introduce “The Story of Mimi”. Immediately, we hear the strains of Mimi’s dying aria from Puccini’s La Bohème. Unlike Leporello however, no one comments on this within Tabarro nor the fact that its final appearance in Tabarro is when it is picked up by a group of seamstresses – Mimi’s profession. Puccini is playing directly on us, the audience, through his musical score, surely with the effect of reminding us that this is the theatre and not real life, that what we are seeing is artificial, and to be experienced accordingly.
While Puccini is reminding us that Il Tabarro is melodrama, however, the experience is infinitely enriched and complicated by the subtlety and power of his music. The setting is brilliantly and realistically created – including in the overture the first musical imitation of a motor-car horn. It is as if the piano accompaniment heightening the action of a silent movie – with the heroine tied to the railway track and a train fast approaching – was replaced by a full orchestral score by one of the most experienced and dramatic of all operatic composers.
Performing Gianni Schicchi together with Il Tabarro produces a thoroughly theatrical evening. Much of the fun of Schicchi comes from the hilarious movement in and out of the character of Buoso Donati on the part of Gianni. There is also a genuine love interest – not least because the audience falls in love with the heroine Lauretta on hearing her meltingly lovely aria, “O! mio babbino caro…” (O! my darling daddy…”). Although this is one of the best-loved of all operatic tunes, it is revealing that its place within the action is so dramatically effective. It follows a dazzling ensemble between the lovers, Lauretta and Rinuccio (“Addio, speranza bella…”), the grasping old lady Zita, and Gianni – each of them singing different music and expressing distinct emotions. The relatives all join in, spitting tacks, while Gianni becomes exasperated with the whole lot of them. This increasingly vicious scene ends with Gianni refusing to have anything to do with them: “A pro di quella gente! Niente! Niente! Niente! Niente!” Now comes Lauretta’s crucial intervention with her key aria – but is it not reprised, and this beautiful interlude is all the more effective for being so fleeting; and the return to the feuding and intrique is all the more telling.
Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi show Puccini at the top of his dramatic and musical form, adept at plot and characterization, rich in allusion, swift in moving the action along. And it works as a diptych…
Robin Simon is Editor of Apollo Magazine, and Art Critic of the Daily Mail. He writes a monthly column for Tatler. He has written on opera for The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and Opera Now and has broadcast on Radio 3 and 4.