PUCCINI OPERA in triplicate

Three acts, three sets, three costume changes highlight "Il Trittico"

Posted: Thursday, October 02, 2008

It's unlikely that attendees to this weekend's performances of Giacomo Puccini's "Il Trittico" will have to journey to the lengths that Puccini did to attend opera productions when he was a young man. He and his brother once walked more than 18 miles from their home in Lucca, Italy, to see a performance of Verdi's "Aida" in Pisa.

Courtesy Of Dave Depew
Courtesy Of Dave Depew

Apparently it was well worth the trip. That performance is said to have spurred him to begin his career as a composer.

Now, 150 years after his birth, Puccini's work is still being remembered and celebrated in such faraway places as Alaska.

Juneau's own Opera To Go will launch its 2008-09 season with performances of Puccini's "Il Trittico." The opera consists of three one-act operas - "Il Tabarro," "Suor Angelica" and "Gianni Schicchi" - and will be performed with the Amalga Chamber Orchestra at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. Puccini designed the three to be presented as a triptych, though they also are quite often seen separately.

"This is a different type of production," said Roald Simonson, the stage director. "It takes three sets, three casts, three lighting designs and three sets of costumes. But when you perform all three together, there are interesting relations that make a kind of emotional art," he said.

"Il Tabarro" ("The Cloak"), the first opera of the three, is set on a barge on the Seine River. What appears to be a very normal day of chores for the deckhands quickly turns into a battle for control by the three members of a love triangle. A wife plans an adulterous scheme with her new flame, and though her husband has his suspicions, they remain unconfirmed. However, through a series of unfortunate coincidences, husband and lover meet face-to-face, and only one of them will walk away from the encounter alive.

"Suor Angelica" ("Sister Angelica") takes place in a convent and focuses on a nun who has spent the last seven years escaping the worries and shame of her past life in the comfort of the church. She receives a visit from a family member bearing less-than-ideal news: Her young son, whom she hasn't seen since birth, died two years prior. Out of love, brokenness and regret, she makes the decision to force her own death to rejoin her son in the clouds. She concocts a poison and consumes it, only afterward fully grasping the reality of her decision. With a prayer to the Virgin Mary, the heavens open and mother and child are reunited.

Performer Patricia Kalbrener said "Suor Angelica" will be her first performance with Opera To Go.

"I've been in musicals before but there had always been some break in melodic action for whatever reason - a dance or spoken-word downtime - but the opera is just one big song, and when no one is singing the orchestra carries the music as if someone still were, so the flow of story is impeccable," she said.

Kalbrener said her role as a nun provided an opportunity to get to know the other performers.

"We are all sister nuns," she said, "wandering about our nunny business and existing together in the convent. It feels like we carry the sisterhood offstage with us, honestly."

"Gianni Schicchi," the third opera, takes place at the deathbed of a very wealthy Italian man, who is surrounded by a plethora of his relatives. The family, however, isn't hanging around to offer support to this poor man, but rather for what they may receive as their inheritance upon the moment of his death. Rumor eventually makes its way to the family that the funds they plan on assuming have already been promised to a local monastery. They scramble to find a way to change the man's will before their money goes out the window, and decide on a delegate to impersonate the old man just long enough to dictate a new will.

The delegate, however, decides to play his own trick on the rest of the family, laying down the will to be very much in his favor.

Meanwhile, his family is powerless to intervene, lest the whole scheme becomes uncovered and each of them loses a hand - the punishment for being an accessory to fraud at that time in Florence.

"The third opera has Puccini's most famous melody of all," Simonson said. "People who don't even know opera will recognize it. It's called 'O mio babbino caro,' meaning, 'Oh, my dear papa', and it has been heard in car commercials and many other familiar, non-operatic settings."

Juneau will have a chance to experience the "Il Trittico" both as a whole and in parts. "Il Tabarro" and "Suor Angelica" will be performed twice, on Oct. 4 and Oct. 10, as will "Gianni Schicchi," on Oct. 5 and Oct. 12. The entire "Il Trittico" will be performed Saturday, Oct. 11.

Tickets are available at both Hearthside Books locations and at the door. Each ticket purchased will be honored at every performance with no attendance limit, giving audience members a chance for an opera overdose.

Thirty-three performers make up the cast of the three operas, some of whom will double-dip and participate in as many as two of the productions.

"It's theater, and we're all there for the same reason; we want to make it as entertaining as possible," Kalbrener said.

• Libby Sterling is a writer and musician living in Juneau. She can be reached at fresh@libbyis.com.

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