We start with water, in Il tabarro (The Cloak), a grim verismo tale of a Parisian bargee, Michele (Chris Owens), who kills his wife's lover and wraps the body in his cloak. From the start two huge drawbacks emerged that ran throughout the evening: the small Broomhill stage was hopelessly cluttered, with rather useless flights of stairs on both sides, and a barge and jetty at the rear. With modifications, this same set (designed by Christopher Woods) was used for all three operas. Each lasts only about an hour, which means there is little time to set up the atmosphere, or to build up tension and momentum. A cluttered stage is distracting.
The second drawback is language. Il trittico is not in the great lyric tradition, where the sound of the original text is a crucial element of the aesthetic. It is vital here for each word to be understood. The Broomhill audience was under a double bind: the operas were not only sung in Italian, but an Italian that was, with few exceptions, largely incomprehensible, even in recitatives. A lengthy programme synopsis was no substitute.
Nevertheless, with high quality acting from all involved, and no loose ends, thanks to Callow's concentrated directing style, there were many telling moments. Suor Angelica, the triptych's central panel, presents the tale of a young woman forced by her family to enter a convent after giving birth to an illegitimate child. While the other nuns stand around, Angelica busily tends her plants and flowers - a telling image of her impulse to take part in creation, as opposed to the arid existence of her companions. "Air" - a projection of sky and cloud - here represents the Heaven that Sister Anglica still hopes for.
By contrast, the "Fire" image preceding Part 3, Gianni Schicchi, is a joky allusion to the Hell that awaits the Florentine trickster for engaging in fraud and deception. Callow here creates an elegant Pirandellian world and, for once, makes real use of those damned stairs to keep his cast in constant motion. Lurelle Alefounder acquits herself well in Lauretta's famous "O mio babbino caro", but the real star is Anthony Marber in the title role, a marvellously assured comic performance.
The Eos orchestra, under Charles Hazlewood, provide a sensitive reading of one of Puccini's most intriguing scores.
'Il trittico' continues to 10 Sept, in rep with three new works. Broomhill, nr Tunbridge Wells. Booking: 01892 517720Reuse content