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Classical: Nuns and lovers: Puccini's women

Women fascinated Puccini - and not just for carnal pleasure, writes Malcolm Hayes
Puccini liked women. Just how much he liked them is clear from Il Trittico - the triptytch of one-act operas, including one with an all- female cast, which many aficionados believe to be one of his finest achievements. And yet, ever since its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1918, Puccini's triple bill of Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi has struggled to conquer the world's opera stages like the heroine- dominated La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and (more recently) Turandot.

There are two main reasons for this, one fair enough and the other outrageous. For a professional company, the sheer number of small-ish roles involved in Il Trittico presents a problem: changing the stage set twice between acts in an evening may be normal operatic procedure, but changing the entire cast twice is not. And there's also the widespread and contemptible snobbery towards Puccini operas in the upper echelons of far too many of the world's major opera houses and festivals. (Branch out a bit into Il Trittico? Even take the composer seriously at all? Dahling, what a suggestion.)

No such anti-Puccini arrogance holds sway at English National Opera, to judge from its bold and welcome staging of the complete Trittico cycle. And none of these incidental problems relates to the quality of the operas themselves. Indeed the sheer range of Puccini's talent, and the streetwise sense with which he used it, were never more cannily deployed.

By the second decade of the century, Puccini had long been thinking about composing a triple bill of one-act operas, but the right subjects had not turned up. Then, on a visit to Paris in 1912, he saw a play by Didier Gold called La Houppelande (The Cloak or, in Italian, Il Tabarro). Four years and one libretto (by Guiseppe Adami) later, this had become Puccini's latest study in the classic syndrome of Italian opera - as defined by Bernard Shaw, viz: "Soprano wants to mate with tenor but is thwarted by baritone." Set on a barge on the Seine in Paris, the story portrays the loveless marriage bentween barge-owner Michele and the much younger Giorgetta. Her affair with the stevedore, Luigi is eventually discovered by the jealous Michele, who strangles his rival, conceals the corpse beneath his cloak, and then dramatically reveals it to his horrified wife.

Having completed the score, with its marvellous gallery of smaller roles, its exquisitely atmospheric evocation of the Seine at evening, and its lurid denouement, Puccini was still not sure which were to be its two companion operas. A meeting with the stage director Giovacchino Forzano solved both problems. Forzano showed Puccini a sketch for a one-act opera about a nun, Sister Angelica, banished to a medieval convent by her aristrocratic family for having an illegitimate child. After seven years there, Angelica learns from a visit by her aunt, the Princess, that her son has died. Poisoning herself in despair, she begs God for forgiveness, and is granted a miraculous vision of her son as she dies.

Puccini took to the idea of this all-female opera at once - as he also did to Forzano's libretto for Gianni Schicchi, the much-loved Italian story of the legendary 13th-century Florentine fixer. Schicchi's out-smarting of the greedy and snobby relatives of the deceased and rich Buoso Donati - by posthumously re-writing the will at their request while benefiting himself by far the most - became in Puccini's hands a comic opera of scintillating pace and mastery. And in Suor Angelica he created a tragic heroine whose plight harrows the emotions as hauntingly as Madame Butterfly.

Much biographical ink has since been spilled on the possible links between the story of two very different women in Puccini's life and the two equally different ones who dominate Suor Angelica. Some years earlier, Doria Manfredi, a servant in the Puccini household at Torre del Lago, had fallen foul of the composer's notoriously abrasive and jealous wife, Elvira Puccini, accused Doria of having an affair with her husband, had her dismissed, and within a few months literally hounded her to suicide. The autopsy proved Doria to be a virgin. The parallels with Suor Angelica are therefore close enough to be tantalising - the put-upon young niece who poisons herself (as Doria did), and the aunt whose heartlessness is more than she can bear.

But there are other aspects of the opera which don't fit. The Princess arguably treats Angelica with insensitive formality rather than with actual callousness, and Angelica has done hardly anything to influence her own fate.

Another story perhaps sheds truer light on how the mind of Puccini the artist really worked. One of his sisters was a nun at a convent near Torre del Lago. Puccini's attitude to women, both before and after his battle- strewn marriage to Elvira, was that affairs were to be pursued as and when it suited him, which was often. This did not prevent him from remaining very fond of his religious sister, and calling in on her and her companions to play them the music of whichever opera he was working on.

On one such visit he turned up with Suor Angelica. When he looked round from the piano to ask them what they thought, he found them moved to tears. For all Puccini's cheerfully carnal lifestyle, there was more than one way in which he found women interesting. Il Trittico, with its wonderful range of human portraits and music to match, is the dazzling evidence.

Rosalind Plowright (Giorgetta in Il Tabarro)

"Giorgetta is a desperate woman. You have to imagine the monotony of her life: always on the move up and down the river, always in awful conditions, always short of company. And on top of that, her and Michele's child had died just the year before. She probably wasn't looking to start an affair, but the stevedores and their wives were company while they were around, and it started from there. Outwardly it may seem to be just a story about a wife having an affair and an obsessive husband. But Puccini's music makes it so very much more than that."

Anne Williams-King: title role in Suor Angelica

"A wonderful role, but difficult because it's so concentrated. At least Madame Butterfly has a grand entrance to get you going. And an interval too! Angelica starts quietly, then she has her confrontation with The Princess. Then she has her big aria, and then she has to die, all in one act. The most difficult thing is not to choke on the emotion."

Elizabeth Vaughan: Princess in Suor Angelica

"I don't think the Princess is all harshness. You have to remember the times. Hers is an aristocratic family, she has to uphold their standards. And from her point of view, she's doing the right thing by coming to tell Angelica, in person, about her younger sister's planned marriage. Then she finds that seven years in a convent haven't improved Angelica, who still picks a fight. Her own tragedy is her narrowness. She just isn't able to empathise with Angelica's feelings for her child. As she's about to leave, perhaps she's beginning to understand. But it's too little, and too late."

Margaret Richardson: Laurette in Gianni Schicchi

"I think you can tell from their relationship that Gianni Schicchi is a widower, and Lauretta is the daughter of a single-parent family. She knows just how to wind her father round her little finger, and he knows that she knows. It's a difficult opera, for the relatives especially - their ensembles are intricate and quick. I'm lucky, I don't get involved in them much.

Puccini's Trittico is at English National Opera, in a new staging by Patrick Mason, conducted by Shao-Chia Lu and Noel Davies, from April 8 to May 12. Tickets & information: 0171-632 8300.