“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.