Triple Play

Classic Arts Features   Triple Play
Puccini's Il trittico, which opens April 20 at the Metropolitan Opera, poses enormous challenges — to the people who have to cast the three operas, to the technical crew that has to stage them, and to the singers. James Levine, Jack O'Brien, and others explain how it happens.

It's no surprise that there hasn't been a new Met production of Puccini's challenging evening of one-acts in more than 30 years. Il trittico calls for three separate casts to perform in three different theatrical styles in three disparate settings. Taken together, the operas represent one of the composer's most profound explorations of the human condition — from the grittiness of Il tabarro to the drama of Suor Angelica to the comic pleasures of Gianni Schicchi. As a new production of this rewarding operatic trio has its Met premiere this month, the artistic and technical forces behind it talk about how they assembled a cast of internationally renowned singers to star in one of the company's biggest technical undertakings.

James Levine, Conductor
"I've been wanting to do a new production of Il trittico for years. Of Puccini's operas, it's one that tends to be comparatively neglected, since it's such an ambitious theatrical undertaking. But the piece is just marvelous, and I'm so glad it's back in the repertory."

Jack O'Brien, Director
"When you're doing Trittico, people ask if you have a concept — a word that makes my toes curl. It's much more interesting to figure out what Puccini wanted. The unity of Trittico is Puccini's imagination, his sound, his craft — not the idea of a set that serves all three ... I wanted to look at Tabarro as if it were a Hitchcock mystery. In Suor Angelica I felt we should figure out how to convey something as miraculous as that ravishing ending. And in Schicchi, all I wanted was to avoid clich_ — to make comedy come from character ... If somebody has a great idea, I intend to use it. And if you don't like my idea, I've got 14 more I'd be happy to show you."

Douglas W. Schmidt, Set Designer
"We spent about a year and a half working on the designs. First thing I do is find out the physical demands: what's happening onstage, how long one has to accomplish given actions. The transition from the bedroom to the Florence skyline in Gianni Schicchi must happen in less than 20 seconds! After some visual research — the librarians at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch were of enormous help cutting materials from the former Paramount Studios picture library — I made sketches and models. The parts of Il trittico bear no relation dramatically, so they require separate visual approaches. We set it up on stage for technical rehearsals last summer for a show that was opening 10 months later."

Jess Goldstein, Costume Designer
"Il trittico is a huge project because each opera has a different cast and is set in a different time period. With opera, you are asked to do your sketches so far in advance of meeting the singers that you don't always know who you are designing for, so that's what's tricky. But when they teched the sets and lights, I was able to sit in the house and get a sense of how the colors read under the lights. That was very informative, and you don't have a chance to do that anywhere else ... Opera is one of the hardest things for a costume designer because you have to think about where the fabric will be around the singers' throats and how tight the costume has to be in order for them to breathe."

Peggy Eisenhaur & Jules Fisher, Lighting Designers
PE: "I had done everything except the Olympics and opera, so this was great. But we had months and months of time to talk about things and no time to execute it!"
JF: "The scenery people can build models and the costume people can do sketches and get fabrics. But we can only talk about it. It's not until we get in the theater, with the set in place and performers there, that we're able to start programming ... A Broadway theater is an empty square box. You put whatever lights you want where you need them. But at the Met, it's a repertory light plot, and the lights are where they are. It's in how you manipulate them that you bring art to it."
PE: "The Met crew has a great ability to re-focus and re-color and change equipment between acts. In Trittico's two intermissions they change hundreds of lights ... For us, the music and the light are inextricably combined — the question is how they can be seamlessly blended. You want the light to ride, just like the music."

Sarah Billinghurst, Assistant Manager, Artistic
"James Levine has wanted to do a new Trittico for years. We had talked with Jack O'Brien about other things, but he didn't feel it was quite right until Trittico ... Salvatore Licitra is someone we were extremely interested in, and we wanted to give him a new production. Maria Guleghina is exactly the right voice and physical type for Giorgetta, and Juan Pons had sung Tabarro with us before and Jim felt he was very good and moving. Barbara Frittoli had told us that Angelica was a role she longed to do. Stephanie Blythe wanted to do the three roles and Jim always enjoys working with her. I saw Alessandro Corbelli in the title role of Schicchi at Glyndebourne years ago, and he was wonderful. We concentrated on artists who had a willingness to work in a theatrical way."

Nick Doumanoff, Head of Construction
"When I saw the designs last year, we though we would bring a lot of pieces from one act into another to make it simpler to change over, but it just didn't work out. We had to build it in a way that works with the stage crew. Quick and efficient. Half of the construction was done here and the other half in our shop in the Bronx. Decks and flooring were done there since it's a bigger space and is available to the painters for longer. We had about 60 people here building the sets through the spring and early summer to get the show ready for the tech week in August."

Stephen A. Diaz, Master Carpenter
"This is a very big show. We containerize all our scenery in a facility in New Jersey, and a normal show may have as many as 11 truckloads of scenery. Il tabarro alone was 11. The other two operas combined are an additional 12 loads. That's 23 containers, more than for any one opera in our repertory. When it hit the stage for tech, my first problem was to figure out how to move the sets on and off the stage within the 30 minutes an intermission allows. In total, we'll have as many as 100 people working the performance."

Douglas F. Lebrecht, Chargeman Scenic Artist
"One of the first things we built and painted was a full-size sample of the boat in Il tabarro. It's one of the things that must work since the whole set wraps around it. Then samples of the cyclorama of Florence in Schicchi, samples of stone for the cloister in Suor Angelica. There's a lot of scenery in this show to be painted, 'flattage,' as well as decks, floor-cloths — there are three different skies! We use every trick in the book in these three productions."

Joan Dornemann, Musical Preparation & Prompter
"Singers are so busy today that they don't always have time to work on a piece until they get here. I've been with the Met for 30 years, so I usually have a good idea of what Maestro Levine wants — style but not exaggeration, good rhythmics, fine diction. Just talking to the singers about the piece helps in finding a style. For Gianni Schicchi we have to decide things like whether or not we're doing the Bolognese and Fiorentino accents that are in the libretto ... Prompting is about sending energy, or sending calmness when things get overexcited. Anything can happen out there — doesn't matter how thoroughly prepared you are."

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