ENO, London Coliseum
Shostakovich once asked Britten what he thought of Puccini. "I think his operas are dreadful," came the reply. "No, Ben, you're wrong," said the Russian. "He wrote marvellous operas, but dreadful music." And he also wrote Il Trittico. A triple-bill of one-acters, first seen in New York in 1918, it goes a long way - over a very long evening - to prove just the opposite. Here are three scores that offer plenty of good (if not marvellous) music, but hardly one decent opera between them.
And it's not just the problem of that title, although ENO's refusal to bill it as "The Triptych" clearly concedes the fact that it is no such thing, in the sense of three panels that actually hang together (for which see Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann - or rather, don't: ENO's run ended last night).
As Puccini himself well knew - and maybe it's no coincidence that, with the war still raging in Europe, he offered first bite at the piece to America, the home of fast food - all he had to dish up here was a good, old-fashioned helping of Grand Guignol - a thrill, a weep and a laugh in equal measure. It's the theatrical equivalent of a triple-decker sandwich.
The Big Pooch, ENO could have called it - for, sadly, in Patrick Mason's new staging, it really is a bit of a dog's dinner. Il tabarro, the evening's opener creaks its way to its murderous end with all the unpredictability of The Mousetrap. Any sexual tension it might have had is betrayed by ENO's inability to cast it at anything like the ages specified. As the jealous barge-owner Michele (50, says the libretto, and impotent, say all those pointed references to his pipe's having gone out), Phillip Joll sounds sufficiently old (his tired tone always did, even when he wasn't) but all he does (as usual) is bark: oh, for a bit of colour in that relentless bellow. As his frisky young wife Giorgetta (25) and her toyboy Luigi (20), clearly neither Rosalind Plowright nor David Rendall matches the job description, but she at least sounds comfortable in her part (not perhaps entirely the point), while he has the right open-throated abandon for his. Mason's climax, however, as Michelle forces Giorgetta's lips onto those of the dead Luigi, is simply vulgar.
Nothing, though, compared to the pure kitsch of Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica). The tale of a nun who kills herself when she discovers her bastard baby has died and, instead of being eternally damned, is welcomed into heaven by invisible choirs of angels (ENO's usual botched-up loudspeaker job), the Virgin Mary herself and the nun's now angelic little boy, it's a sick-making excuse for the women's chorus to wander around in white wimples for an hour or so smiling insipidly.
Finally comes Gianni Schicchi, the one surefire hit of the evening - or so one always thinks until one sees it. On record, it's a winner. Here, apart from Andrew Shore's immaculately sung and acted Schicchi - every move instinct with character and comedy - it was just the usual pantomimic hotchpotch of overacted, face-pulling cameos, and the comedy in the music died on stage. I'll have to check my Dante, but isn't there a special spot in hell reserved for opera directors? The conductor, Shao- Chia Lu, it must be said though, is a bit of a find.
In rep to 12 May. Booking: 0171 632 8300