Fine Voices, Wit Buoy ‘Il Trittico’ At Opera Carolina

Sister Angelica (???) sees a vision of her dead son in Opera Carolina's production of the Puccini opera.  (Photos by
Suor Angelica (Jill Gardner) reacts to the vision of her dead son and the Virgin Mary in the Opera Carolina production.
(Photos by
By Perry Tannenbaum

CHARLOTTE, NC – Founded in 1948 on a shoestring budget of $125, Opera Carolina has grown to become the largest opera company in the Carolinas, with an annual operating budget edging close to $3 million. With a $300,000 audience-building grant, Hearst Foundations led the way in corporate giving as the Charlotte company launched its 65th anniversary season last fall with a mixture of conservatism and adventure.

To celebrate the bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner, they’ve programmed the most bankable title by each composer, Aïda and The Flying Dutchman. In between these commemorations at Belk Theater, they’re currently wedging in the company’s first-ever production of Il trittico, continuing Opera Carolina’s ongoing traversal of Puccini, one that  started in 2011 with Madama Butterfly, continued last season with Tosca, and is slated to run through 2017.

Giorgetta and Luigi share an intimate moment before disaster strikes.
Giorgetta and Luigi share an intimate moment before disaster strikes.

While Il trittico, which runs through Sunday, Jan. 26, has never been presented before in Charlotte, its component one-acts are deep in Opera Carolina’s DNA. Both Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi were part of the 1956 season, back in the time when company productions veered wildly from Song of Norway to The Marriage of Figaro, from Faust to The King and I, from The Merry Widow to the obscure Aaron Burr conspiracy opera Blennerhassett, and the even more obscure folk opera set in Mexico, Sunday Costs Five Pesos.

Il tabarro made its one and only previous mainstage appearance, paired with the more popular Cavalleria rusticana, in 1974. Schicchi was reprised on the mainstage in 1986, paired with I pagliacci, and Suor Angelica toured for the company in 1988.

So often orphaned, the three one-acts of Il trittico require very different sets, an obstacle to reuniting the siblings. Opera Carolina used scenery designed by Eric Renschler for the 2006 production of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi for Chautauqua Opera and asked Charlotte designer Tim Parati to fashion a complementary design for Il tabarro.

What unites the Chautauqua pair are the arches of the Siena convent — where we see the penitent sister — transformed during intermission into the handsome bookcases and window casements in the bedroom of the rich and dying Florentine Buoso Donati. For Il tabarro, Parati’s choice to dock a boat in front of such arches made me imagine briefly that we were in a Venice canal rather than on the Seine, but that dislocation isn’t the most violent ever perpetrated by a contemporary opera company. Compared with the modernistic Miro-like abstraction designed by Keith Warner for the 1999 production of Il tabarro at Spoleto Festival USA, I found the Renschler/Parati fusion eminently sensible and more dramatically apt.

Suor Angelica reflects about the son she had to abandon.
Suor Angelica reflects despairingly on the son she had to abandon.

So were the three singers at the center of this riverside love triangle, particularly baritone Chen-Ye Yuan in his Opera Carolina debut. When Warner directed the Spoleto Trittico, he cast Brent Ellis as both Michele and Schicchi, but he couldn’t coax much of a performance from him as the jealous husband of Il tabarro. By contrast, Yuan not only is dramatic when Michele finds Luigi sneaking onto his boat after dark for a tryst with his wife Giorgetta, but he also projects a perfect mixture of tenderness, bitterness, and frustration in the climactic bedtime duet recalling the unraveling of their marriage in the wake of their infant son’s death.

Soprano Jill Gardner could hardly be better matched with Yuan; she is conspicuously younger and fresher than the baritone yet obviously mature enough to have experienced Giorgetta’s past joys and heartbreaks. There’s an appealing fruitiness in her “È ben altro il mio sogno!” as she sketches her dream of a quiet life in Belleville, on the outskirts of Paris, without sounding humdrum. Jealousy is a musical fuel too potent for Puccini to make it Michele’s exclusive province here, and tenor Dongwon Shin makes Luigi’s jealousy burn with a bright clear flame as he commiserates and conspires with Giorgetta, culminating with his impassioned “Folle di gelosia!” arietta.

'Gianni Schicchi' Opera Carolina (
Donati’s conniving relatives are eager to find out what they’ll inherit.

Jay Lesenger’s stage direction falters at the point when the lovers’ signaling plans go awry, but there are no dramatic deficits in the miraculous denouement of Suor Angelica – the statue of the Virgin Mary coming to life, granting absolution for Angelica’s mortal sin. It comes with a brilliantly judged burst of light from lighting designer Michael Baumgarten, all the more celestial with the lavish intercession of a fog machine. Gardner is a luminosity in her own right as she sings of her seven years of suffering to her royal aunt. The portrait builds naturally from there, sweetly anguished after learning of her son’s death in her “Senza mamma,” and pure sublimity afterwards.

In this staging, we sense that Puccini has packed just enough ongoing suffering into the action surrounding the unrelentingly cold princess’s visit to certify Angelica’s life as an affecting sacrifice.  Susan Nicely is more than sufficiently stolid as the Princess, yet Lesenger augments her rigidity with an entrance and exit that are almost militaristic in their geometric formality. The memory of it dissolves in the liquid balm of the all-female choir singing from offstage as Angelica is granted her glorious redemption.

Lauretta pleads with her father, Gianni Schicchi, to read the will.
Lauretta pleads with her father, Gianni Schicchi, to read the will.

Leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, Opera Carolina artistic director James Meena was even more empathic at the climax of Suor Angelica than he was when the melodrama of Il tabarro peaked. Backing the lively onstage action of Gianni Schicchi, with plenty of comedic hijinks distributed by Lesenger among a sizable ensemble of greedy Donati family members, the orchestral contribution seemed to nearly disappear as the patriarch died and his disinherited heirs fluttered and fretted. We felt Puccini’s score most acutely when Lesenger and Meena decreed a complete silence before the familiar “O mio babbino caro.” As Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta, soprano Melinda Whittington sat herself in her father’s lap with such an air of bored and conceited confidence that the comedy threatened to upstage the plaintive serenade, which worked its magic nonetheless infallibly.

Mixed with Gianni’s customary slyness and eccentricity, Yuan left a sliver of his Michele menace in his Schicchi. That extra forcefulness paid its most comical dividends when Schicchi hatched his treachery to the indignation of the cheated heirs. Yuan sternly reminded the hypocritical mourners of the legal consequences of divulging their complicity in his fraud by waving the end of his nightgown sleeve as if his hand had been lopped off. Victor Ryan Robertson, as Lauretta’s beloved Rinuccio, added more than enough fervor when the couple’s bliss was assured to convince us that Schicchi’s damnable exploits were in some way worthwhile.

Perry Tannenbaum regularly covers the performing arts scene in Charlotte, North Carolina, for Creative Loafing and His CD and concert reviews have also appeared in American Record Guide and JazzTimes.