opera : Il trittico, Broomhill

REVIEWS Della Couling cuts through the clutter of Simon Callow's stagin g of Puccini
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Broomhill, just outside Tunbridge Wells in Kent, is another of those events, unjustly termed "mini-Glyndebournes", producing interesting opera in unusual locations. Only a few years ago, this little theatre tucked behind a Victorian mansion was "rediscovered" and restored to working order. In the three years it has been staging a short summer opera season, it has managed to put itself firmly on the map - partly by attracting some famous names to direct its productions. Two years ago, it was Jonathan Miller with Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos; this year, it's Simon Callow with Il trittico, Puccini's "triptych" of short operas seldom seen together today. As Callow argues in the programme, there are cogent reasons for treating all three as parts of a whole, and to underline the coherence, he projects images of water, air and fire before each one.

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 517720