Patricia Racette’s TriumphantTriple-header

Steven Winn on September 17, 2009
Patricia Racette in Il tabarro
Photos by Cory Weaver
In a long-gone era of baseball, before they needed four days of rest between starts, pitchers routinely worked both games of a doubleheader. Soprano Patricia Racette goes them one better in San Francisco Opera’s Il trittico, by playing substantial roles in all three outings of this 1918 Puccini triple-header of one-act operas.

If it were only a showcase for this one iron-woman achievement, Il trittico would earn a spot in the company’s record book. But this production, seen on Tuesday’s opening night, is so strong and satisfying in so many ways that Racette’s grand slam of humid, sensual allure in Il tabarro; wrenching, self-destructive tragedy in Suor Angelica; and parodic ingenue glitter in Gianni Schicchi is just part of a continuing hit parade.

The all-star singing and acting begin with the opening Il tabarro and never let up. Baritone Paolo Gavanelli is both richly sonorous and tensely stricken as a French barge captain whose marriage to the adulterous and grieving Giorgetta (Racette) has run dangerously aground. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich is seductively volatile, in soaring voice and languid, predatory bearing, as the wife’s lover. Supporting roles, from mezzo Catherine Cook’s tattered and wheedling scavenger to her loyal, booming-voiced husband (bass Andrea Silvestrelli), are expertly and decisively handled.

Suor Angelica, for all its stage-filling swarm of nuns and ailing children (members of the San Francisco Girls and Boys

In Suor Angelica

 Choruses), boils down to a dramatic confrontation between the eponymous Sister Angelica, whose becalmed air masks a dark secret, and her pitiless aunt. Racette glows here in the title role, in a performance of harrowing range and depth. Having floated an ethereal high note of prayer, she unleashes a torrent of clenched fear, raking despair, mounting panic, and pianissimo resignation as the tragic action unfolds.

It’s all set off by a visit from a family member the sequestered nun hasn’t seen in seven years. Contralto Ewa Podles, in a compelling company debut, radiates scorn and hauteur as the regal aunt. The simple act of removing her hat and placing her purse on a table seems fatefully charged. Podles’ voice, as though case-hardened by birthright, accumulated privilege, and cigarette smoke, is calmly terrifying here, a yawning, fathomless hole of judgment and preordained doom. It’s a totally persuasive, shiver-inducing turn.

And Now, for a Change of Pace ...

Gianni Schicchi lightens the mood at evening’s end. An old man’s death, a family’s craven greed, and the cunning machinations of the title character (a comically commanding Gavanelli) are sources for unending joviality. The would-be heirs come off as at once distinctively 
The cast in Gianni Schicchi
avaricious and pathetically united in their greed. Racette sings “O mio babbino caro” (Oh, my dear papa) with a glossy, beguiling innocence. Tenor David Lomelí is her honey-voiced sweetheart. Sweeter still, in its blend of nostalgia and affecting lyricism, is the tribute to Florence that Gavanelli serves up in the midst of the plot’s money-mad manipulations.

The production, first mounted by the New York City Opera in 2002 and craftily staged by James Robinson, provides vital support and enhancement of all this first-rate music-making throughout. The odds alone suggest that in a three-play evening at least one of the operas would sag a bit. But that doesn’t happen here. Allen Moyer’s settings are ingeniously conceived to transform the stage’s open-front cabinet into three striking environments.

For Il tabarro, he’s made a kind of psychological prison of the barge and stone seawall. Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi have both been updated to the 20th century, with a fluorescent-lit science classroom for the former and a black-and-white, commedia-inflected, secret-panel game board for the latter. Costume designer Bruno Schwengl plays along smartly in Gianni Schicchi, by limiting his own stylish palette to black and white. It’s all a visually punning play on god and evil.

Racette in Gianni Schicchi

Christopher Maravich’s lighting merits special mention. His subtly rippling shadows in Il tabarro and balance of fluorescent glare and haunting hall light in Suor Angelica are perfectly judged and modulated. So is the way he ramps up the light to a lurid yellow in Gianni Schicchi, when the greed threatens to spill right out of the boxed set and into the house.

One slight misgiving about this vivid Il trittico, at least on opening night, was the sometimes wayward performance by the orchestra. Conductor Patrick Summers elicited some warm and witty playing, but there were also some ragged entrances, miscommunications, and blotchy details. But that’s a very minor cavil about an otherwise splendid night at the opera. Don’t make the mistake that some first-nighters did, by checking out early. Right to Gavanelli’s final, wishful address to the audience in Gianni Schicchi, San Francisco Opera is at the very top of its game.