Il trittico (Royal Opera House)

Richard Jones’s production returns to Covent Garden in its first revival

Lucio Gallo as Schicchi and Elena Zilio as Zita in Gianni Schicchi (ROH)
Lucio Gallo as Schicchi and Elena Zilio as Zita in Gianni Schicchi (ROH)
©Bill Cooper

After Figaro Forever last week, here’s another operatic triptych. Puccini’s trio of mini-masterpieces has been lucky of late, with a five-star debut for Richard Jones‘s Royal Opera production in 2011 and the same again for Opera Holland Park‘s searing staging last summer. This first revival of the Jones, though still a must-see, is fractionally less perfect than either of those.

The issues are with Il tabarro (The Cloak), the dark tale that opens the trilogy. Set by designer Ultz at an ultra-naturalistic Parisian mooring post on the Seine, it may be a study in exhaustion but it only succeeds in feeling a bit tired. Conductor Nicola Luisotti is seduced by the textures of Puccini’s impressionistic scoring into a reading of symphonic lyricism that hobbles the verismo. Patricia Racette sings the role of Giorgetta eloquently but not searchingly, and I miss any sense of febrile desperation in her character; Carl Tanner, a suitably burly stevedore, sings well but misses the animal in Luigi, while Lucio Gallo, who also sang the vengeful Michele five years ago, struggles with the high tessitura when the going gets rough. As an account it may yet bed itself in – let’s hope so – but on this showing the opera’s ultra-precise definition is best rendered in the cameos of Jeremy White (Talpa), Lauren Fagan and Luis Gomes (the Lovers) and David Junghoon Kim (the Song Seller)

If Il tabarro is raw steak, then Suor Angelica is a subtly flavoured carbonade. This time, thankfully, Luisotti has its measure, and Jones’s inspired children’s hospital setting (designed by Miriam Buether) once again works its magic. Ermonela Jaho returns in the title role and is oceans better than last time, when vocal limitations meant she had to rely on her intense acting skills to carry her through. (To be fair, others were more impressed with her than I was.)

Since then the Albanian soprano has developed into a magnificent artist and the subtlety of her interpretation has become overwhelming. Her Sister Angelica is a humble soul, stooped and seraphic as she prepares the children’s medicines but a lioness at one startling moment during her encounter with Anna Larsson‘s somewhat low-key Princess. When Jaho began her aria of bereaved motherhood, "Senza Mamma", at a daring sotto voce, there were stifled sobs from the audience.

Lucio Gallo was a man transformed in the title role of Gianni Schicchi . He is so much more at home as the wily manipulator of Puccini’s comedy than he is as Michele, and with a supporting cast that includes veterans Gwynne Howell and Elena Zilio the comedy bounces off the garish floral walls of John Macfarlane‘s curved set and lands straight in our laps. Genuine laughter at an opera – who’d have thought it? But Gianni Schicchi gets ’em every time.

Benjamin Davis is the revival director for Schicchi (Sarah Fahie looks after the other two operas) and his quest to achieve the most detailed stage picture affords endless delights. Paolo Fanale and Susanna Hurrell are irresistible as the young lovers: he throws himself around like Grigolo on uppers during "Avete torto", she delivers a sweet, long-breathed "O mio babbino caro" that wins the love of a packed Royal Opera House. There’s some great clowning, too, from Rebecca Evans and Marie McLaughlin as ugly sisters Nella and La Ciesca. But ultimately it’s Gallo’s show, and he steals it.

Il trittico runs in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 15 March