San Francisco Opera's Il Trittico

It's been fifty-seven years since Il Trittico, Puccini's trio of one-act operas, has graced the stage of the War Memorial Opera House and the current production on loan from New York City Opera can only make one ask "What took so long?" Having seen LA Opera's excellent production last season, I was doubtful San Francisco's was going to measure up. It doesn't, but it's still pretty good.

Thankfully it looks like I don't have to start searching out recipes for crow just yet. While SFO's Il Trittico is an improvement on the lackluster treatment most productions received last season, it's not at the same level of the summer's Porgy and Bess nor the season-opening Il Trovatore. Those who disagree with this assessment are likely to be bigger fans of Patricia Racette than I am. Don't get me wrong, I think Racette is a fine singer but I've never seen her in anything that left me believing she is a great singer (I skipped her 2007 Butterfly because frankly I was tired of seeing that production on the schedule every other year). Her turns in each of Puccini's one-acts didn't change my opinion of her for better or worse. Racette was also at a disadvantage from my personal perspective, given that in the past two weeks I've seen stand-out, star-making performances by Nino Machaidze in LA's Elixir and the amazing Sondra Radvanovsky in SF's Trovatore. Racette just didn't generate the same sparks for me, but overall this is a fine production and if you've never seen these operas this is an excellent chance to do so.

Il Tabarro begins with Paolo Gavanelli (Michele) and Patricia Racette (Giorgetta) standing onstage estranged and alienated from one another. It's obvious something's wrong here and it's only going to get worse. Racette's costume makes her look like a delicious tart to the point of distraction- a women who looks like this (and is wearing those shoes) lives on a barge with this old guy? When Giorgetta dances with Michele's hired hands initially it all seems like a gentle lark- a woman enjoying some attention she can't get from her husband. That is until Brandon Jovanovich (Luigi) takes his turn and suddenly there's some real heat onstage. The problem I've always had with Tabarro is it takes too long to get to the good part- where the audience is let in on what happened between Michele and Giorgetta- and this is what keeps Il Tabarro from being great verismo ala Cav or Pag. When it does come, Gavanelli lets loose all of Michele's anguish so effectively it delivers an emotional wallop. Then you understand why Giorgetta is dressed as she is and all the pieces fall into place. This production does a great job at making Il Tabarro come across as more than it really is, thanks to the strong acting of the leads, though vocally neither Racette nor Gavanelli were in particularly great condition on the night I attended (09/24). Jovanovich looked the part and sang well, but my experience with him makes me feel he's more effective vocally when he's singing in German.

Suor Angelica should have been the tour de force moment for Racette and while it was fine, she never really took off with it and was almost upstaged by Ewa Podles. San Francisco has waited a long time for Podles to appear and she delivered. The Princess isn't a huge nor even a particularly well-written part, but Podles was riveting from the moment she made her entrance and commanded the stage until she left it. Having seen Sondra Radvanovsky as Angelica last year, perhaps I'm not giving Racette her due, but as anyone who's seen Radvanovsky in SFO's Trovatore can attest, she sets a pretty high bar to reach for anyone following in her wake. The staging for this production was effective, though it reminded me of SFO's production of Busoni's Doktor Faust- maybe because of the florescent lights. The creeping grit and decay making inroads into the spic-and-span world of the nuns and nurses was a nice way to emphasize the opera's underlying themes. It seemed almost a waste to have Heidi Melton onstage in such a small part, but I guess even small doses of Melton are better than none at all.

The best is saved for last. Gianni Schicchi is a comedic blast and Gavanelli is terrific in the title role. Racette is a convincing Lauretta and the rest of the large ensemble cast (including a large number of Adler fellows) all hit their marks and notes with just the amount of zest and exuberance. The set is perfect fun and the less said about the production the better because this Schicchi is a true delight.

A lot of attention has been given to Racette's taking on all three female leads. This is more of an acting challenge than a vocal one and Racette pulls this off with apparent ease. She's a strong presence onstage and each of her three characters is unique. However, this production doesn't feel like a star turn or anything close to that for either Racette or Gavanelli- it has an ensemble feel that brings these three disparate operas into a whole and makes for a pretty satisfying three-course meal.

Finally, the real star of this Trittico is guest conductor Patrick Summers. The orchestra sounded as good as I've ever heard it and the pacing of all three operas was perfect. Summers and SFO General Manager David Gockley have a long association and I'm hoping this is the beginning of more regular appearances by this very talented conductor.