Is three minutes of musical joy a good payoff for three acts of waiting?
If you know nothing more about “Il Trittico” than “isn’t that the one where someone gets to sing ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’?” one of the great soprano arias, it would be a fair question.
Luckily, Giacomo Puccini packed enough emotional punch into his triptych of opera vignettes to make the wait for that one soaring moment worth the trip. When individual arias aren’t the highlight, the stories must be, and the three stories of “Il Trittico” are each fulfilling in their own way. As a friend said in one intermission, “It’s like opera tapas.”
Although they’re rarely performed except for the last story, “Gianni Schicchi” and its soaring “O Mio,” Puccini meant for the three stories to be kept together. Loosely inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedia,” the three are supposed to be tales of human emotion, from Hell (“Il Tabarro,” the cloak) to Purgatory ( “Suor Angelica,” or Sister Angelica) to Heaven (“Gianni Schicchi,” Puccini’s only comedy).
In Opera Carolina’s production, which opened Saturday night in the Belk Theater at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the three stories move through time, from a barge on the Seine in 1910 Paris to a convent in 17th century Tuscany to a bedroom in 15th century Florence. But the emotional journey is even longer, from murderous jealousy to suicidal regret to greed and comeuppance.
In the opening story, “Il Tabarro,” the cloak is both a piece of clothing and the hidden motivations of the characters, barge owner Michele and his wife Georgette. Michele struggles with sadness over why Georgette no longer loves him, Georgette chaffs at their life and her secret love for the dockworker Louis, Louis rails at having to work for Michele when he loves Michele’s wife.
And Georgette is hiding the real motivation, the loss of a child that drove the wedge between her heart and her husband. That keeps it from being so easy to condemn her, even when the action takes a turn for the dark and sinister.
The real woman who can’t be condemned, of course, is Sister Angelica in the lilting second act, the nun cast away to an isolated convent by her wealthy family as punishment for having a child out of wedlock. When she is visited by her imperious aunt, The Princess, she learns that her child died two years before, without knowing the love of his mother. Her grief and her appeal to the Virgin Mary to unite her with her child in heaven is the real emotional highlight of the night.
Soprano Jill Gardner, who sings both Georgette, the fallen-woman wife, and Angelica, the fallen-woman nun, stitches both characters together. Her voice is soaring and sublime, her acting capable of wringing sympathy for both. Staging issues and trouble with the supertitles in the first act hold down some of the impact. It’s sometimes hard to hear the stevedores and people walking by on the banks of the river are missing translation, so it’s hard to follow all the action. But the middle act, in the convent, makes good use of the all-female cast, with birdlike flutes and the sweetness of spring in the music.
The only singer who appears in all three acts is mezzo soprano Susan Nicely, who handles three strong characters, Georgette’s scavenger friend Frugola, Angelica’s imperious aunt, and the leader of the greedy family in “Gianni Schicchi.”
And that finally brings us to “Schicchi,” the farce with enough broad comedy, mugging and back-stabbing to stand in for a season of “The Real Housewives of Sienna.” Greedy mourners tear into overturning a will that leaves them penniless with the help of the clever schemer Gianni Schicchi, who really just wants his daugher, Lauretta, to have whatever she wants, and what she wants is enough money to marry the dead man’s nephew.
That famous aria arrives at last, when Laurette, sung by soprano Melinda Whittington, plops in her father’s lap to sing out her desire to Daddy Dear -- “O Mio Babbino Caro,” “Oh, my beloved father.” Tucked in the midst of all the mugging and capering of the mourners, however, it’s a bit of a letdown, like finally seeing the Mona Lisa and realizing she’s only smiling because someone just tickled her nose with a feather.
No, the real emotional highlight has passed in the second act, when Sister Angelica hurled herself toward heaven for the love of her son. She’s literally singing her heart out, and that’s the real payoff for your night.
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