As of 7:30 PM last Wednesday, I had seen Patricia Racette in just one operatic role: Leslie Crosbie in the world premiere of The Letter. As of 11 PM Wednesday, I had seen her in a total of four roles. How is that possible? Answer: because she played all three leading soprano roles in a production of Il Trittico at San Francisco Opera!
After this, I'm convinced that Racette can do anything. I don't think her voice has an instantly recognizable timbre, but her musicianship, the effects she creates with her singing, and her emotional commitment to her characters are what make her such a valuable artist. She even looked completely different in every role!
As Giorgetta, the adulteress of Il Tabarro, she was a hot mama in a skintight dress. And I might add, her portrayal of Giorgetta was very different from her portrayal of Leslie Crosbie this summer, even though the two characters have some things in common--their sexual frustration and willingness to cheat on their unloved husbands. But Giorgetta seemed younger and more hopeful than the ice-cold Leslie.
In the title role of Suor Angelica, she epitomized the modest nun with the overburdened heart. Vocally and dramatically, this is probably the most intense role of the three; Angelica is alone onstage for the last part of the opera and going through some extreme emotional states. The final notes of her aria "Senza mamma" sounded off to me, as if Racette didn't have the breath to sustain them--though considering the wrenching pain that Angelica is feeling, at least this flub fit the emotional palette of the role.
And in as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi--really a cameo role with one unforgettable aria--she was an extremely cute '50s ingenue, cutting loose and playing up the comedy. She sang "O mio babbino caro" as a petulantly pleading Daddy's-girl; at the end, she burst into hilariously fake sobs.
But, though Racette was the star, she had a very strong production and cast surounding her. I am now convinced that Il Tabarro is an underrated opera: it has great atmospheric music, a beautiful Puccini love duet, a crude but effective plot, and excellent pacing. The box-like set of the SF production was kind of weird, but inside of it, the singers were well directed to embody the love triangle. There was some dirty dancing between Giorgetta and her lover Luigi (the brooding tenor Brandon Jovanovich--I loved his voice at Opera at the Park, but there I sat too far away to realize that he's also a good-looking fellow!), and a complex rapport between Giorgetta and her cuckolded husband Michele (baritone Paolo Galvanelli). Galvanelli made Michele's wounded rage palpable, and shared Racette's talent for transformation: later, he was funny and jovial as the title character of Gianni Schicchi.
Unlike my dear sainted grandmother, I do not have a high tolerance for nuns, so the scenes of convent life in Suor Angelica just bored me. But beginning with the scene with the Princess (sung here by powerful contralto Ewa Podles), when the opera shifts its focus to Angelica's personal crisis, it does have some good moments of drama.
Recently, since the new Tosca at the Met was such a failure, there has been a lot of hoopla in the press asking whether that production violated Puccini's intentions by eliminating some traditional stage business, debating how much of an update is too much, etc. What's interesting is that the SF Suor Angelica production undoubtedly violated Puccini's intentions, but no one booed, and, in fact, the director's choice probably made this sentimental work more palatable to a modern-day audience. At the end of the opera, a distraught Angelica takes poison, hoping to join her dead son in Heaven--then realizes that suicide is a mortal sin and she will be damned to Hell. Then, the Virgin Mary provides a miracle: traditionally, the final image of the opera has Angelica's little boy appearing and welcoming his mother to Heaven.
For Italians of a certain age, this works like a charm; for many other people, it's just glurge. So the SF production found a different solution. First, instead of setting the opera in a traditional convent, it updated the time period to the mid-20th-century and had the nuns running a children's hospital. (During one of the early scenes, several little kids in hospital gowns came onstage and the nuns fed them.) Therefore, when Sister Angelica, in her final moments, dimly sees a little boy out in the corridor, and reaches toward him... is it really her dead son, or just a hospital patient who happens to be passing by? Rather than being left with the thought that God is merciful and took pity on Sister Angelica, we are left with the thought that miracles and/or God do not exist; and while Angelica might have been comforted, as she died, by thinking that this boy was the phantom of her son, he was really nothing of the sort.
So, some people might call this sacrilege against God and Puccini both, but it didn't feel that way to me. It wasn't gleefully shocking; it was thought-provoking and, in its own way, moving. While it didn't elicit the sentimental tears that Puccini wanted, neither did it elicit a reaction of "Give me a break! That's so cheesy!" Instead, it left you feeling pity for Angelica's lonely death.
As for Gianni Schicchi, it must be hard to write a good short comic opera (or there'd be a lot more of them in the repertoire) but Puccini makes it look easy. The production was appropriately cartoonish, with several funny gags; my favorite was when the enormous, buzzy-voiced bass Andrea Silvestrelli lit the funeral candles by holding them up to the cigarette that dangled from his mouth!
Photos from SF Opera. Tenor David Lomelí is the guy accompanying Racette in the Gianni Schicchi picture.