The One-Act Problem
Opera companies face a dilemma when presented with a one-act work. The fixed costs of a production are not much less than a standard two- or three-act work, so ticket prices remain the same. Yet the audience is receiving less than a full evening’s entertainment.
So with the exception of Wagner’s Der fliegende Hőllander and Das Rheingold (which is the prelude to the entire Ring cycle), one-act operas are not often presented as standalone productions. Companies will produce a double-bill, such as Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, a pairing that remains enduringly popular.
Giacomo Puccini late in his career fulfilled a longstanding plan to compose three one-act operas on contrasting themes, all inspired by Dante. The result was the triptych Il trittico, comprised of the one-act operas Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi.
As it developed, however, only one of the libretti, that for Gianni Schicchi, was inspired by Dante, and very loosely at that. Still, he insisted on all three operas being performed in one evening, and the premiere was in New York at the Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 14, 1918.
The complete work proved to be too long, however, and now only rarely are all three operas performed together in one evening. Of the three, the comic masterpiece Gianni Schicchi proved to be an immediate success.
Il tabarro’s libretto is blunt and brutal, even by the standards of the Italian verismo style of the day. Audiences in our era, however, have become either accustomed or desensitized to brutality being depicted in dramatic works, so Il tabarro has probably eclipsed the others in popularity.
Suor Angelica is one of Puccini’s least performed works, although of the three works it was the composer’s favorite. From a technical point of view, the work is flawless. The vocal writing in particular is of the highest order, and the orchestral writing is some of Puccini’s most complementary to the vocal lines.
It is impossible not to be drawn immediately to the characters and the manner in which they are portrayed. Unfortunately, the plot line of the libretto is slender, and so the work is somewhat static dramatically. Perhaps some companies shy away from its all-female cast, even today a rarity. It is my number one candidate as an opera that cries out for revival, at least in concert form. In the concert hall, if not in the opera house, it cannot fail to succeed.
Il trittico in Delaware…
Although it has not been announced formally, Opera Delaware plans to produce Il trittico during its 2018 season.
…and on the air
You can hear it here at 2 P.M. on July 2, 2017, as our regular Sunday Opera Matinee feature. We will broadcast the operas in the order Puccini intended. While the performances of all three are very fine, that of Suor Angelica is particularly noteworthy.
Il trittico: Giacomo Puccini
Libretti: Il tabarro: Giuseppe Adami, from Didier Gold’s one-act play La Houppelande
Suor Angelica: Giovacchino Forzano
Gianni Schicchi, Giovacchino Forzano, from an episode in Dante’s Inferno