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To Other Worlds

Puccini’s Trittico and the Armchair Traveler

by Roger Brunyate

Il Trittico at Peabody, November 20–23, 2003

Other essays by Roger Brunyate

One of the great enjoyments of going to the opera is the expectation of being wafted out of the humdrum and carried to other worlds, distant in place and time. Ever since the earliest days, grand operas have been set in remote times and countries or the imagined realms of myth. [Of course, remoteness is a matter of perspective. It is amusing, for instance, that even in a period when Anglo-Saxons were still regarding opera as a foreign frippery, many Italian composers were turning to Britain as the source for their exotic settings, with operas such as Bellini’s Norma (about the ancient druids) and I puritani (the English civil war), and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (set in Scotland) and even Emilia di Liverpool! ] True, operas with home-grown contemporary settings did exist, but they were invariably comedies.

  Portrait of Giacomo Puccini
Giacomo Puccini
This began to change towards the end of the nineteenth century, when Giacomo Puccini was beginning his career. The stagecraft of the beginning of the century which could conjure up vast vistas of the imagination, like a Delacroix painting come to life, had now become capable of amazing detail, especially as electric lighting became available. To capitalize on this, playwrights and composers turned increasingly to contemporary settings, whose reality would be recognizable and shocking. Audiences who had become jaded with mere artistic impressions of a place and time could still be wowed by seeing the real thing upon the stage. At the same time, authors began to explore the rougher unschooled passions of common people as the stuff of drama, in contrast to the mannered aristocrats of a bygone age. And so the age of verismo (realism) was born, as exemplified by works such as Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890), Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci (1892), and Puccini’s own La bohème (1896).

Actually, with the single exception of Il tabarro, the first work in his trilogy of one-act operas which formed his Trittico of 1918, Puccini never returned to verismo again. Tosca (1900) goes back almost a century to Rome in the Napoleonic era. Madama Butterfly (1904), after a play by the American author David Belasco, is indeed a contemporary subject, but set in distant Japan. La fanciulla del West (1910), after another Belasco play, is also more or less contemporary, but set in a milieu almost as foreign to Puccini as was Japan: the wild west of the California Gold Rush. His final, uncompleted opera Turandot (1926) goes all the way back to Chinese myth and leaves the contemporary world entirely behind.

Nonetheless, whether his settings are removed in time or space, Puccini has the uncanny ability to take us there through the detail of his depiction; he is the perfect composer for the armchair traveler. The drama of Tosca, for example, depends totally upon its settings, and those settings were recreated in the utmost detail. Musically, too, one has only to listen to the dawn song of the shepherd boy outside the walls of Rome and the church bells pealing from the city in the third-act prelude to realize that Puccini took as much care with musical atmosphere as he demanded from the staging and lighting of his productions.

Set design for Il Tabarro by James M. Fouchard
Il Tabarro
Set design for Peabody by James M.Fouchard

Puccini’s choice of settings is one of the most striking things about Il trittico, the triptych of one-act operas he composed in 1918 for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For instead of taking his audience to one locale, he now shuttles them between three utterly different settings in the one evening: a working barge on the Seine in contemporary Paris, a 17th-century convent cloister, and pre-Renaissance Florence in 1299. The three operas are united by the theme of death. The first, Il tabarro (The Cloak), is a lurid thriller, a tale of jealousy and revenge. The second, Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica), is a sentimental tragedy with a strong dose of religious uplift. And the third, Gianni Schicchi, (most improbably, since it takes place during a wake) is an hilarious farce!

  Logo for Il Tabarro
However, just as Puccini’s dramaturgy was born of a particular theatrical esthetic, so his operas ideally call for a particular type of theater. And that theater, unfortunately, is not the Peabody Concert Hall, whose thrust stage is ideal for projecting young artists into the lap of the audience, but less suited to providing the picture-frame and stage machinery within which every aspect of what the audience sees can be controlled. Budget apart, it is not possible to portray every detail of the teeming working-class life which provides the background to Il tabarro, or to show the precise skyline of medieval Florence against which Gianni Schicchi is played out. But the physical limitations make us more aware Puccini’s uncanny musical evocation of these things, such as the organ-grinder, song-vendor, midinettes, and young lovers who emerge from the Parisian twilight, or Rinuccio’s great aria about Giotto and the Medici which proclaims the Florentine Renaissance more clearly than mere stagecraft could ever do. One may also look more deeply into the question of how Puccini’s settings appear to the characters who inhabit them.

Here the Trittico becomes especially interesting. For, to a degree not found in the other operas, each of the settings is not only remote from the audience but also creates an hermetic world which isolates the characters themselves, sealing them off from the larger world around them. The tension between the artificial world of the drama and the larger world which can barely be glimpsed outside is the mainspring of all three dramas, and the true common thread between them.

Logo for Suor Angelica  
This is seen most clearly in Suor Angelica, which is set within the walls of a cloister, beyond which the outside world is never seen. The title character is a noblewoman who has been sent away after bearing a child out of wedlock. For years, she has heard no news of her family or of her son. The only people to come in from the outside are the sisters who collect alms, but such news as they bring is only gossip. Hence the cataclysm caused by the arrival of a figure truly from the outside: Angelica’s aunt, the Princess, who arrives with some papers for her to sign, and mentions in passing that her son had died some years before.

Il tabarro takes place on a barge tied up to a wharf on the Seine. Most of the stevedores live nearby and come aboard merely to help load and unload, but for the principal character Georgette her home is with her husband Michel on the barge itself, traveling up and down river, but seldom going ashore. The life of the working people of Paris which Puccini suggests so adroitly is little more than a dream for her, and when Louis, one of the crew, offers to elope and make her dream a reality, she cannot resist. Thus, out of the yearnings of ordinary and basically sympathetic people, wanting what they half know they can never have, spring the flowers of a savage violence that will take them all unawares.

  Logo for Gianni Schicchi
Gianni Schicchi takes place in the house of a wealthy man, Buoso Donati. His greedy relatives have gathered to enjoy the fruits of his will, but when it is discovered that he has left everything to the Church, they are thunderstruck. Buoso’s nephew Rinuccio, motivated by his desire to marry his beloved Lauretta rather than by greed, asks Lauretta’s father Gianni Schicchi to help them. His help consists of pretending to be the dying Buoso, and dictating a new will. But to do this, they have to seal off the house so nobody will find out about the death. So again we have an hermetic world, but this time of the characters’ own making.

Over the course of the Trittico, Puccini has moved six centuries back in time, from his own century to that of Dante. But the final result is to blow away the cobwebs, break down the walls, and look forward. For, as Rinuccio points out, Gianni Schicchi (a real personage mentioned in the Inferno) is a man of the new century, representing the ingenuity of the Renaissance as clearly as the hidebound Donatis still inhabit the middle ages. When the vulture family are finally driven out, and the young lovers are united on the terrace with Florence gleaming in the sunlight behind them, we see that the unattainable possibilities of the other operas are finally open to them. Our armchair journey leaves the confines of the stage, and launches into the freedom of imagination.

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