The first two parts of Puccini’s Il trittico have finally caught up with the four year old Gianni Schicchi, getting the Royal Opera’s new season off to a cracking start.  There was a fair amount that could have gone wrong with this project but director Richard Jones, and a sterling team of designers (different for each opera), steers through the pitfalls with characteristic brilliance.

A few years ago, Jones made an all-out assault on the verismo tradition, with a Cav and Pag at ENO that, no matter how audaciously done, got in the way of the works and stunted the dramatic effect.  Now, with Il tabarro, the dark opening piece of Il trittico, he takes a step back, allowing the opera to speak for itself.  For some, he may be a bit too hands-off as far as the principals are concerned.  He doesn’t allow them to do much but stand and deliver and there’s a slight awkwardness to Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Giorgetta and Lucio Gallo’s Michele. 

Meanwhile, the background teems with life and detail.  There’s a real sense of toil, with the sweaty, backbreaking labour of the workmen and an industrious sweatshop of women at sewing machines, glimpsed through the windows of the wharfside buildings.  The murky path running alongside the Seine, as the grim story of betrayal, jealousy and thwarted love is played out, is peopled by a stream of passersby: shuffling old men, drunkards, lusty sailors and whores going about their business.  Alan Oke’s seedy Tinca is another finely-observed characterization from this splendid singer and Alexandrs Antonenko makes a macho, desperate lover of the doomed Luigi.  Designer Ultz’s Paris barge is a wonder to behold.

The middle panel, Suor Angelica is where things could have gone very wrong.  In an attempt to avoid the schmaltzy melodrama, Jones could have gone up any number of blind alleys but he and his collaborators get it spot-on.  He manages to de-sentimentalise the piece, while drawing out the inherent dramatic strengths.  He doesn’t do anything too radical, setting it in the children’s ward of a convent hospital, rather than the usual cloisters (designer Miriam Buether).  It means there are plenty of boys at hand, so when Angelica sees the vision of her dead son, it’s a real, flesh-and-blood child she sees through a drug-induced haze. The middle section of the opera is the most striking, as a shallow, windowed wall (familiar to Richard Jones fans) drops in and the meeting between Angelica and her aunt is played out on a narrow strip at the front of the stage.  Things turn almost expressionistic, Anna Larsson’s stern princess sliding along the wall, apparently in fear of the young nun, and Angelica (Ermonela Jaho) clutching at the walls, as she hears of her son’s death.  Jaho, a late replacement for Anja Harteros, is a little powerhouse and what follows is heart-wrenching, making Suor Angelica the highlight of an already fine evening.

Audiences at the Royal Opera House are familiar with Jones’s take on Gianni Schicchi, now on its second revival and slotting perfectly into the right-hand panel of the triptych.   It’s an opera that always leaves one wishing Puccini had done more comedy, so deft is his touch, and it’s mined here for full comic potential.  Jones gives us a 1950s Italian family of grotesques, scrabbling for their inheritance and duped by the wily antics of the handyman.  Lucio Gallo returns in a vastly contrasting role to his first appearance of the evening and he’s just one of an array of finely-drawn characters in a pitch-perfect display of comedy timing.  At the second performance of the run, Ekaterina Siurina was indisposed and Anna Devin, one of the house’s Jette Parker Young Artists, had a chance to shine as a sweet-voiced and attractive Lauretta.

Unlike London buses, it’s unusual for three Puccinis to come along at once.  It’s the first time that Covent Garden has performed them together in 45 years and the cumulative effect leaves you hoping they’ll never be separated again. Antonio Pappano draws a rich, gorgeous performance from the Royal Opera Orchestra all evening. It’s a luxurious wallow and a real return to form for the company.

- Simon Thomas