Il Trittico review – an eloquent, gutsy outpouring of Puccini’s passion and pain

<span>Drama and suspense … Roland Wood as Michele and Alexia Voulgaridou as Giorgetta in Il Tabarro.</span><span>Photograph: Craig Fuller</span>
Drama and suspense … Roland Wood as Michele and Alexia Voulgaridou as Giorgetta in Il Tabarro.Photograph: Craig Fuller

Puccini wrote passion and pain like no other, as the first two operas – Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica – of his triptych indisputably demonstrate. Welsh National Opera’s co-production with Scottish Opera, of the David McVicar staging first seen in Glasgow last year, finds the threatened company in fighting form – it needs to be – and pulling no emotional punches. Conductor laureate Carlo Rizzi is in his element, eliciting lustrous playing from the WNO orchestra and attention to the score’s descriptive detail, conveying Wagnerian drama and moments of suspense that might be from film music.

In Il Tabarro, the tragic loss of a baby lies at the heart of the breakdown of barge-owner Michele’s marriage to Giorgietta. The outcome is his murder of her young lover. The Parisian canal setting is all of a piece with Puccini’s touch of Grand Guignol, along with a Zeffirellian take on verismo, and the angry surges of tension are sustained to the bitter end.

While footage of Puccini’s own sister, a mother superior speaking from behind her convent grille, suggests a benign beauty in the second opera, Suor Angelica, in this production, the cruelty of seeing a tiny baby torn from the arms of her mother by a nun is the initial clue to its core heartbreak. Forced to give up her own illegitimate son, stigmatised and committed to a nunnery, Angelica lives a life of penance, only mitigated by her skill at healing others. The glimpse of Angelica’s apothecary shelves is a brilliant touch, since here is stored the poison she will use to kill herself on learning of her son’s death. This time the surge of emotion comes as the dying Angelica repents the mortal sin she has committed, but her reward is a vision of the Virgin and a heavenly reunion with the child. In an eloquent outpouring of grief and Angelica’s final joyous redemption, soprano Alexia Voulgaridou – already a fine Giorgetta in Tabarro – ensured that there was scarcely a dry eye in the house.

By contrast, in the burlesque that is Gianni Schicchi – the triptych’s final part, based on a story from Dante’s Inferno about a Florentine knight – Puccini’s intention was pure comedy. If not exactly divine, the sure touch of his humour is a surprise to those who only know the heartstrings pull of O Mio Babbino caro, and revival director Greg Eldridge instilled into the element of farce a frenzied energy. With the medieval pranks updated to 1971, the ensemble in their caricature costumes clearly had a ball. Schicchi has the look of a rough and ready fixer, but his innate cunning inspires him to impersonate a dying man and rewrite his will, all to his own advantage. Roland Wood, in resonant vocal form, captures Schicchi with suitably Falstaffian bravura, having earlier brought to the character of Michele a brooding melancholic potency.

With so many sharply drawn characterisations and cameo roles, it is hard to single out individuals, but Tichina Vaughn, first as Angelica’s harsh guardian the princess, then as Zita, showed her range and depth, while Leonardo Caimi’s Luigi, Oleksiy Palchykov’s Rinuccio and Haegee Lee’s Lauretta also deserve honourable mentions. Charles Edwards’ sets and the care lavished on this staging made for a hugely appealing performance in total, WNO guts and integrity everywhere apparent.

• At the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, on 18, 20 and 22 June. Then touring