IL TRITTICO – Giacomo Puccini

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.