Puccini’s Double Bills

Nights at the Opera

On The Town | Oliver Macdonald | March 2012

The French film L’Artiste revives memories of the good old days of silent films and later times when cinemas were large theatres in which the show consisted of two films separated by an interval. The secondary film was known as the B movie. Those were the days…. However, in the world of opera, the practice of presenting two short operas in one evening, with time for a glass of bubbles in between, happily continues.

The best-known pairing is Cav/Pag, standing for Cavalleria Rusticana, a melodrama in one act by PietroMascagni renowned for its beautiful, tear-jerking Intermezzo, and Pagliacci (The Clowns), a tragic drama in two acts by Ruggerio Leoncavallo. Both operas belong to the verismo (true to life) style, not shying away from the raw side of humanity. This evergreen combination returns to the Staatsoper at the end of April, still in the wonderful 1985 productions by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

Puccini, probably inspired by Cavalleria Rusticana, began to show an interest in one-act operas in 1904.  The result was a triptych: Il Tabarro (The Cloak), a dark tale of love, jealousy and murder in the verismo style; Suor Angelik, an inspiring tale of spiritual redemption, said to be Puccini’s favourite, and Gianni Schicchi, a roguish comic opera, the most frequently performed of the three. The Triptych had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on 14 Dec. 1918.

In October 2000 the Staatsoper paired a new production of Gianni Schicchi with a never previously staged work, Die Jakobsleiter, from an oratorio by Arnold Schoenberg.  In following years Gianni Schicchi was paired with both operas of the Cav/Pag pair.  The figure Gianni Schicchi is based on a real person, whom Dante had placed firmly in Hell for his wickedness. Puccini is less judgemental and leaves it to the audiences to judge: Gianni comes through the curtain alone at the end to plead with the audience to accept his skulduggery as justified by "extenuating circumstances". The applause measures the approval of his plea.

Two of this triptych’s operas are part of this season’s programme at the Volksoper. They are Der Mantel (The Cloak – sung in German) and Gianni Schicchi, also in a German version, in excellent productions by Robert Meyer. There are still three performances in March.

Another excellent twinning was at Theater an der Wien in January, when two short Russian operas were very successfully combined by the British producer/director Stephen Lawless.  One, Iolanta, Tchaikovsky’s last opera, may ring a bell as it was presented in concertante (alternating between solo and tutti) form in Salzburg last year. It is a fairytale love story about the blind daughter of René, King of Provence, who both gets her man and recovers her sight, all to lovely music and song… i.e. heaven.

The other, Francesca da Rimini by Sergei Rachmaninov, is also a love story, but a different one. Dante has seen a couple in hell and they tell their story. By arrangement, Francesca is to marry Lancelotto, who is ugly and limps.As it was feared that Francesca might reject him, his brother, the handsome Paolo is sent to pay court and act as proxy at the wedding.  Francesca recoils from her husband, as she is in love with Paolo. Jealous Lancelotto murders them both, and as their relationship was adulterous, they end up in Hell. Coincidentally, the libretti of both operas were written by Modest I. Tchaikovsky, the brother of the composer.

There is another new pairing beginning at the Volksoper on 31 Mar., when Das Bajazzo (Pagliacci in German) takes to the boards twinned with H.W. Henze’s opera Das Wundertheater (1964). The connection is the question of performance (the suspension of disbelief?) and reality in the theatre.

In addition to a new production of The Tales of Hoffmann, this month there are four concertante operatic presentations at  Theater an der Wien.

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