IL TRITTICO – Giacomo Puccini

Puccini Piano

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1918 the Met con­duc­tor Roberto Moran­zoni sailed to Europe expect­ing to hear the world pre­mière of Puccini’s three one-act operas, Il Trit­tico, in Rome,” writes Robert Tug­gle, Direc­tor of Archives for the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera, in his book, The Golden Age of Opera. “But the war forced the can­cel­la­tion of the Rome pre­mière, and the two men met instead in Viareg­gio, where Puc­cini played over the scores with him, and Moran­zoni in return taught Puc­cini the cur­rent Amer­i­can rage, George M. Cohan’s ‘Over There.’ ”

When Moran­zoni returned to New York, The Evening Sun news­pa­per reported, he brought with him not only the scores of the operas, but “the sketches for the set­tings of these lit­tle operas, and var­i­ous mes­sages from Puc­cini, who it seems has gone so far as to sym­phonize, in a whim­si­cal moment, George Cohan’s ‘Over There,’ with which he is intrigued.”

For the honor of giv­ing the very first per­for­mance of Il Tabarro, Suor Angel­ica, and Gianni Schic­chi, the Met paid “$7,000 for Pre­mière per­for­mance on Earth (on or before Dec. 31st, 1918.)” The $7,000 was in addi­tion to the guar­an­tee of five per­for­mances at $400 if all three operas were given together. The pre­mière, on Decem­ber 14, 1918, was actu­ally the sec­ond time the Met had pre­sented a Puc­cini opera to the world. Eight years before, La Fan­ci­ulla del West, an opera actu­ally set in the Amer­i­can West dur­ing fron­tier days, had been unveiled in one of the most glit­ter­ing evenings in Met history.

Geral­dine Far­rar and Flora Perini in Suor Angel­ica, 1918

The hoopla sur­round­ing Trit­tico’s first per­for­mance was a bit more sub­dued. For one thing, Puc­cini him­self could not attend. Though World War I had ended a month before, ocean travel was still risky, and Puc­cini was oblig­ated to over­see the Euro­pean pre­mière of Trit­tico in Rome, which fol­lowed the Met’s by only a month. (The Met’s gen­eral man­ager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, released a let­ter from the com­poser to the press in which Puc­cini wrote,  “Could I have fore­seen the sud­den col­lapse of our ene­mies, I cer­tainly should have been help­ing to cel­e­brate the glo­ri­ous vic­tory in New York.”)

Still, some news­pa­pers decided the occa­sion was proof that “New York is now musi­cally on the uni­ver­sal map, as the say­ing is,” since Puc­cini “who once would have pre­ferred Rome, Milan, Naples or Venice for the scene of a new pro­duc­tion, now gladly sends his works across the Atlantic for pro­duc­tion at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan of New York.”

Gatti-Casazza was fully aware of what a spe­cial occa­sion it was and raised the price of orches­tra seats from their usual $6 to $7. He jus­ti­fied the one-dollar raise by say­ing that if it had taken place in Milan while he was man­ag­ing La Scala, “No less than $20 a ticket would have been charged for the orches­tra seat. So it is cer­tainly not ask­ing too much of the pub­lic to charge them seven dol­lars for the best seats at the triple pre­mière when the com­poser is none other than the com­poser of ‘La Boheme’ and ‘Tosca.’”

Accord­ing to Irv­ing Kolodin’s his­tory of the Met, Gatti him­self had reser­va­tions about the new work, both because he did not under­stand how the three operas worked together, and he “frankly deplored the need for putting three prima don­nas to work on the same evening.”  The first Trit­tico did, indeed, put three prima don­nas on stage the same evening: two of the biggest stars of the day, Geral­dine Far­rar (Suor Angel­ica) and Clau­dio Muzio (Il Tabarro), were joined by Flo­rence Eas­ton (Gianni Schic­chi), the soprano who was forced to repeat Lauretta’s aria, “O mio bab­bino caro,” that first evening, thus launch­ing it imme­di­ately as a favorite encore for sopra­nos every­where. With leg­endary bari­tone Giuseppe De Luca as Gianni Schic­chi him­self, and tenor Giulio Crimi and bass Adamo Didu both doing dou­ble duty by appear­ing in Tabarro and Schic­chi, Gatti had not scrimped on male singers, either.

The day after the first per­for­mance, he sent Puc­cini a telegram say­ing (in part): “Most happy to announce the com­plete authen­tic suc­cess of the Trit­tico. At the end of each opera long very sin­cere demon­stra­tions more than forty warm cur­tain calls altogether…Daily press con­firms suc­cess express­ing itself very favor­ably on worth of the operas enthu­si­as­ti­cally for Schic­chi.” In fact, the public’s reac­tion in New York — gen­er­ally repeated in other the­aters — was more respect­ful toward Tabarro and Suor Angel­ica, with gen­uine enthu­si­asm for Schic­chi, uni­ver­sally seen as the best of the three. In the New York Times, James Huneker wrote, “The suc­cess of the new triple bill is unques­tioned,” but he also declared,  “ ‘Gianni Schic­chi’ is eas­ily the most indi­vid­ual of the three com­po­si­tions. In it Puc­cini has achieved unqual­i­fied distinction.”

Flo­rence Eas­ton as Lau­retta, 1918

Puc­cini had long been inter­ested in com­pos­ing a work made up of three one-act operas. Partly this was because one-act operas had been in vogue with the pub­lic, start­ing with the sen­sa­tional pop­u­lar­ity of Mascagni’s Cav­al­le­ria Rus­ti­cana. Par­tially it was because Puc­cini hoped it would be eas­ier to find good libretti for short works than it was to find a good libretto for an evening-length work. And par­tially it was because Puc­cini hoped three very dif­fer­ent works would pro­vide an evening of vivid con­trasts for the pub­lic — con­trast being a vital part of Puccini’s sense of drama.

His first thought was that the plots would come from Dante’s Divine Com­edy—if not directly, then their sto­ries would still cor­re­spond to the titles Inferno, Pur­ga­to­rio, and Par­adiso. As it turned out, only the last opera, Gianni Schic­chi, had its ori­gin in Dante’s work.

The first of Trit­tico’s oper­atic sub­jects to appear was Il Tabarro. Puc­cini saw the one-act play Le Houp­pelande (The Cloak) by Didier Gold dur­ing a 1912 visit to Paris, and was imme­di­ately seized by its oper­atic poten­tial. Though its two cold-blooded mur­ders — both of which hap­pen on stage in full view of the audi­ence — meant it was Grand Guig­nol, Puc­cini was also drawn by its depic­tion of the atmos­pheric life aboard a barge on the River Seine. To Giuseppe Adami, who would even­tu­ally write the libretto of Tabarro, Puc­cini explained, “Lady Seine should be the true pro­tag­o­nist of the drama.”

Il Tabarro, 1918

And his think­ing imme­di­ately began mov­ing toward other works to round out the evening. He wrote another libret­tist: “It [Tabarro] pleases me and strikes me as highly effec­tive. But this red stain needs some­thing dif­fer­ent to con­trast with it and it is this that I am look­ing for: some­thing that will be some­what ele­vated, and give me an oppor­tu­nity to write music that will take wing.”

The pro­jected libretti by Gabriele D’Annunzio and Tris­tan Bernard, for the remain­ing two operas, never worked out. Nei­ther did a host of other poten­tial sub­jects, though Puc­cini spent con­sid­er­able time and effort on Ouida’s Two Lit­tle Wooden Shoes. Puc­cini appar­ently even asked the advice of George Bernard Shaw and Sacha Gui­try. Adami began comb­ing the works of Charles Dick­ens, a favorite author of Puccini’s, for pos­si­ble subjects.

Before find­ing the com­pan­ion operas to go with Il Tabarro, which was fin­ished in Novem­ber 1916, Puc­cini (and Adami) wrote La Ron­dine.  It was shortly before Ron­dine’s first per­for­mance in March 1917 that Gio­vacchino Forzano showed Puc­cini a sketch of a one-act play, set in a con­vent and with all female cast, he had writ­ten for a tour­ing com­pany. Puc­cini, whose sis­ter Iginia (two years older than the com­poser) was Mother Supe­rior of the Covent of Vicopelago, imme­di­ately real­ized what an effec­tive con­trast it could be for Tabarro. Forzano com­pleted his libretto to Suor Angel­ica within a cou­ple months and the delighted com­poser set to work.

While Puc­cini was busy with what he called his “nun opera,” Forzano sug­gested an opera based on the Flo­ren­tine rogue, Gianni Schic­chi, who — very briefly – appears in the 30th Canto of Dante’s Inferno. At first Puc­cini was cool, but as the libret­tist fur­ther devel­oped the story, Puc­cini became so enthu­si­as­tic about it that he put aside Sour Angel­ica, and began work­ing on the com­edy. As it turned out, Suor Angel­ica was com­pleted on Sep­tem­ber 14, 1917; Schic­chi not until April 20, 1918.

Lotte Lehmann, a Vien­nese Suor Angelica

At first, Puc­cini was adamant that the three operas always must be given on the same evening, and the Met fol­lowed his wishes for two sea­sons. But it wasn’t long before the­aters began to drop, first Suor Angel­ica (gen­er­ally seen as the weak­est of the three, except in Vienna where Lotte Lehmann in the title role made it a hit) and then Tabarro. For sev­eral decades Schic­chi, paired with a vari­ety of operas — or even bal­lets – was the part of Trit­tico audi­ences were most likely to encounter.

At the Met Schic­chi was paired with Pagli­acci, Hansel and Gre­tel, or even the three-act opera L’Amore dei Tre Re, among oth­ers. It also served (on dif­fer­ent evenings) as a cur­tain raiser for Strauss’s one-act operas, Elek­tra or Salome. One of the most mem­o­rable of these was the March 12, 1949 Sat­ur­day after­noon broad­cast when Schic­chi (with the ritzy cast of Italo Tajo, Cloe Elmo, Licia Albanese, and a young tenor named Giuseppe Di Ste­fano) pre­ceded Salome with the incan­des­cent soprano Ljuba Welitsch and the leg­endary con­duc­tor Fritz  Reiner mak­ing their Met radio debuts. (The gen­eral man­ager in 1949 was Edward John­son who, dur­ing his years as a tenor, had sung Luigi in Tabarro and Rin­uc­cio in Gianni Schic­chi in Trit­tico’s Euro­pean pre­mier in Rome. He did not reprise either role dur­ing his 13 sea­sons as a lead­ing tenor with the Met before becom­ing gen­eral man­ager in 1935, though he did sing Puccini’s Bohème, But­ter­fly, Manon Lescaut, Fan­ci­ulla, Tosca, and Turan­dot with the company.)

In 1975, 55 years after the Met had last pre­sented Puccini’s three one-act operas together in the same evening, the com­pany gave the works a new pro­duc­tion, by Fab­rizio Melano, designed by David Reppa. It was the 12th per­for­mance of Trit­tico as a whole, the 12th per­for­mance of Suor Angel­ica, the 16th of Il Tabarro, but the 76th of Gianni Schic­chi. Since then only Il Tabarro has been given by itself (open­ing the 1994 sea­son), which only con­firms the shift in crit­i­cal think­ing about Trit­tico. This trend toward see­ing the works as being more related than sep­a­rate has been rein­forced by occa­sion­ally hav­ing one soprano sing the lead­ing roles in all three operas — some­thing Puc­cini appar­ently never envi­sioned. At the Met Renata Scotto under­took the assign­ment in 1981 (and was tele­vised); Teresa Stra­tus did so in 1989.

It is unde­ni­able that the emo­tional and dra­matic con­trasts between the works, when seen dur­ing the course of an evening, pro­vide a cumu­la­tive effect, and amplify the impact each opera has indi­vid­u­ally.  In 1918, the New York Times critic, James Huneker  com­pared the music (which he found “clever and char­ac­ter­is­tic”) to “a lyric sym­phony, in which ‘Il Tabarro’ is the first alle­gro, ‘Suor Angel­i­cas’ is an ada­gio, and ‘Gianni Schic­chi’ is a rol­lick­ing, mad­cap scherzo.”

More recently, writ­ers have pointed out the pieces all deal with death: “treated bru­tally in the first piece, sen­ti­men­tally in the sec­ond, and with cheer­ful cyn­i­cism in the third,” noted Julian Bud­den. William Ash­brook pointed out each piece also affirms life in its own char­ac­ter­is­tic way: with Tabarro’s lovers, Luigi and Gior­getta, hop­ing to escape life on the barges for some place they can feel more alive; Suor Angel­ica  more con­cerned with spir­i­tual life, con­trasted with Angelica’s love for her child; and Schic­chi’s end­ing, with its empha­sis on the young lovers who are start­ing life together.

The idea of Trit­tico, as a whole, mov­ing from dark­ness (Tabarro) to light (Schic­chi) is not some­thing Puc­cini artic­u­lated as such. But he com­posed it. As Mosco Carner pointed out, each of the operas reflects, in a very gen­eral way, the image of Dante’s Inferno that first fired Puccini’s imag­i­na­tion.  “Tabarro with its oppres­sive and hope­less story, relates to Inferno; Suor Angel­ica, a tale of moral sin and sal­va­tion through Divine Grace, to Pur­ga­to­rio; and Schic­chi, in its lib­er­at­ing and life-enhancing atmos­phere, to the Paradiso.”

And with this new pro­duc­tion at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan by Jack O’Brien, opera lovers can once again expe­ri­ence Puccini’s Il Trit­tico as he envi­sioned it: an sin­gle evening of three dra­mat­i­cally con­trast­ing works, designed to enter­tain, and move, the audience.

Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, May 2007.