Il Tabarro (The Cloak) and Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) are two short operas by Giacomo Puccini that were originally designed to be performed as a Triptych along with Gianni Schicchi. The full work received its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on 14 December 1918.
Il Tabarro is set in the claustrophobic space of a cargo barge on the waterways of Paris at sundown. The small main cast of Michele (Ivan Inverardi) the barge-owner, Giorgetta (Giselle Allen) Michele's wife, Stevedores – Tinca (Stuart Laing), Talpa (Richard Mosley-Evans) and Luigi (David Butt Philip) plus La Frugola, Talpa’s wife ('the rummager') played by Anne Marie Owens, allow this performance to be performed with one dark and gloomily lit set as nearly everything takes place on or around the barge itself. Add into the story Michele and Giorgetta’s child dying a year earlier, their marriage breaking up, Giorgetta’s affair with Luigi and Michele’s eventual revenge, then you have a very dark story in a very dark space that somehow Puccini perfectly captures the mood of with his music.
This is not bright and colourful opera with uplifting music, but opera set in the grim reality of a hard working people. The music of Puccini always sounds to me like it belongs decades later as a cinematographic film score, and this is Puccini anticipating harsh movie realism long before classic films tackled the subject. For some reason, “On the Waterfront” came immediately to mind when watching this one.
A large part of our immersion into and believability in this claustrophobic world of the barge and its inhabitants and their relationships is down to the skills of our love triangle of Michele, Giorgetta and Luigi. Apart from vocals that you feel come from their hearts, there is that much needed belief that Giorgetta is a woman torn between duty to her husband and wanting a life away from the barge and tempted by the younger, stronger and more handsome Luigi. The fact that Luigi also comes from the same small village that she also grew up in and longs to return to probably plays a large part in this relationship too.
Suor Angelica by contrast (stage wise at least) is a blaze of bright light compared to the darkness of Il Tabarro. The subject matter however is just as grim. Sister Angelica (Anne-Sophie Duprels) is of Royal birth, and has been sent to a convent as punishment for having an illegitimate child. Later events indicate that this may have been more of a political move by other family members though. Angelica finds out that her son has died a few years earlier and decides to join him in heaven by taking her own life…an act that she immediately realises after the event is a mortal sin that will prevent her from ever entering heaven. It all sounds like a pretty grim story, but there are some really good character parts here for the other nuns, and some very gentle humour that breaks up the sternness of cloistered life a bit. Also interesting to hear the nuns discussing amongst themselves their few desires in this life, proving that they are all still human beings and have not as they are supposed to have done left all such earthly feelings behind them.
Anne-Sophie Duprels is a very good Sister Angelica who manages to convincingly portray a young woman living as a nun not out of choice but the actions of others, and the contrast between her and the other members of her group is interesting. Of course, outstanding vocals too. Some lovely character parts here to from the other nuns/sisters including Soraya Mafi, Katie Bird and Sarah Estill.
The simple but well used stage sets allow for some inventive use of lighting to set not only the tone but also some well placed “divine lighting” and a giant shadow crucifix on the floor for one scene. By stark contrast to the brown and white costumes of the nuns, we get the bright designer gold outfit worn by the Princess (Angelica’s Aunt) played by Patricia Bardon as she visits Angelica to get her signature on a document in true operatic villain style.
Some interesting projection work in the final scenes too as Angelica’s final moments of life slip away from her. Has she been granted mercy and been re united with her child in heaven, or is she imagining the event? The question is never answered and probably should never be.
Again, all through this work, Puccini’s music sets the tone perfectly, and of course the subject matter here allows that gentle move into the always beautiful to hear area of “sacred music”.
Two stories with equally grim subject matters, but staged in two completely contrasting ways that show not only the strength of Opera North’s performers, but also the skill of its design, lighting and sound crews.
Review by Tom King