An essay in the booklet for the Blu-ray release of the Royal Opera House's 2011 production of Puccini's Il Trittico remarks that there's always a temptation to try and find a common theme between the three short operas that the composer wrote to be performed together, but that essentially they were written mainly to complement each other only in so far as the contrast they provide. That still doesn't stop producers (or those writing about the work) from trying to find connections between them. Antonio Pappano in his introduction here sees the overall theme as deception, which I like, and it's a useful theme to keep in mind, but although there could be other commonalities found between the works - young love and dreams being stifled or weighed down by events from the past - the main uniting theme is indeed the diversity of the works. Il Trittico will make you laugh and it will make you cry - you can count on that - but, should you want to, there's a wealth of riches to explore here in Puccini's masterful scoring and the variety of themes that he covers.
The variety of the subjects and the manner in which they are written and played out however is more than just for the entertainment of the audience (although this is evidently the primary consideration and there is something for everyone here), but it seem to me that they are also purposely diverse in subject matter, tone and treatment in order to give Puccini as much scope as possible to stretch himself and develop into new musical areas that had been opened up in the post-Wagner world of 20th century opera. Even if the romantic melodrama of Il Tabarro or the tragic opera heroine theme of Suor Angelica are familiar areas for Puccini (the comedy of Gianni Schicchi is however another matter entirely), one can see that he is working musically outside the comfort zone of traditional Italian opera arrangements and arias, working within the constraints of the shorter form in order to concentrate on finding the purest expression of the dramatic and emotional content of the works. In each of the works - even in the comic form - Puccini is looking to create music that goes beyond illustrating the action of the drama and the libretto, abandoning even the aria as the conventional operatic means of character expression.
Pappano makes reference to the influence of Debussy and impressionism, which is most obviously evident in the opening sounds of the canal dockyard blending into the music itself in Il Tabarro, creating a perfectly evocative atmosphere for the dark, misty setting, but the music throughout seems to express the underlying social context, the inner lives of the characters and their pasts, as much as it illustrates the dramatic events that occur in the present. There is also considerable maturity in the through composition of Suor Angelica and in Puccini's attempt here not so much to accompany the action as much as describe the otherworldly aspects that drive it, seeking to express a deeper, more complex view of extreme and very specific female emotions where a sense of motherhood has been denied and is at the same time caught up in religious devotion and monastic discipline. The comic opera is certainly not a style you would associate with Puccini, but his treatment of the humour in Gianni Schicchi meanwhile is nothing short of brilliant. He finds an almost furtive, subtle, insidious expression for the Donati family's group of greedy, grasping, backstabbing, moneygrubbers in all their scheming self-importance. It's dazzling to hear how a composer of Puccini's experience and maturity handles himself in this unfamiliar register.
Richard Jones' sets for each of the three short works match the tone of the production, striking a good balance between the narrative realism that is required and the deeper themes suggested by Puccini's score, with simple but telling touches. The singing, vitally important to capture the nuance that is necessary in such short works, is also excellent in each of the pieces. Il Tabarro has a strong Giorgetta in Eva-Maria Westbroek, who works powerfully with Aleksandrs Antonenko's Luigi, while Lucio Gallo is a dark and intense Michele, even if he doesn't have quite the required weight and presence. He's a much better fit as the seedy scheming lawyer Gianni Schicchi. Ermonela Jaho not only sings Suor Angelica exceptionally well, but she is completely involved in a role that demands acting of concentrated intensity. It's Antonio Pappano's contribution to the production as a whole however that proves to be the critical factor in its overall resounding success. All this richness and diversity, the sense of fun and drama, along with the serious musicological insight and consideration of the deeper qualities of the work is borne out in Pappano's conducting of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who give a mesmerising performance. With excellent casting and singing, and an appropriate staging, you really couldn't ask for more.
Opus Arte however also package the set extremely well. In addition to the impeccable technical presentation on Blu-ray, with a crystal clear High Definition transfer and outstanding HD sound mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that reproduce the music and the singing exceptionally well, each of the three hour-long operas are presented separately and given their own optional introduction that briefly sets out the premise and the treatment. An additional Extra Feature follows Lucio Gallo through make-up, warm-up and last-minute preparations with the conductor for his two roles as Michele and Gianni Schicchi. The full-HD Blu-ray is region-free, dual layer BD50, with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.