It was ambitious of Opera Carolina to stage all three of the one-act operas in Trittico by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). They require that the stage of Belk Theater be reset with three different sets reflecting 20th, 17th, and 13th century periods. The company’s imaginative adaptations of unit sets made for smooth transitions between each opera, each roughly 45 minutes in length, with two normal length intermissions. Conductor James Meena led his forces, an ideal “Puccini” cast of singer-actors and the fine Charlotte Symphony orchestra in the pit; the effective staging, lighting, and costumes that placed each opera in its historic period made for a terrific evening in the theater.

The New Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book describes the three works of Trittico as “an example of Grand Guignol, a piece of sentimentality, and a comedy.” The set consists of Il Tabarro (The Cloak), Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica), and Gianni Schicchi. They were commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and premiered there in 1918.

According to Kobbé, It Tabarro was slow to find favor. It is like Tosca but minus the political overlay and set among the lower classes. It is a compact and dramatic opera worthy to be paired with either of the verisomo twins Cavalleria Rusticana or Pagliacci, tragic love triangles such as half the murders on the local news.

Il Tabrro is set on a barge docked along the Seine near Notre-Dame in 1910 Paris. Fifty-year old barge owner Michele is married to twenty-five year old Giorgetto. She has become restive since the death of their child and has begun an affair with Luigi, one of several stevedores who unload the barge. Other characters are stevedores Tinca and Talpa and the latter’s wife Frugola, who collects refuse. The music conveys all the bitterness and hopes and dreams of the characters and ends with the husband murdering the lovers, making dramatic use of his large cloak.

Suor Angelica has been the least popular of the three with both audiences and managements. It is a little like watching someone pull wings off butterflies, and it suffers from Puccini’s worst flaw, heavy-handed sentimentality. In Florence, a noble family has packed off their daughter, Suor Angelica, to a convent for the scandal of having a child out of wedlock. After seven years without a word from her family, her elderly aunt, the imperious Princess, comes to make Angelica sign over her rights to her younger sister, who is about to be married, and to remain in the convent to atone for her sin. Angelica uses her herbal knowledge to commit suicide. Coming to her senses that she has committed a mortal sin, she prays to the Virgin for forgiveness, and dies as a vision reveals the Virgin and Angelica’s son coming for a heavenly reunion.

The comedy of Gianni Schicchi has been a hit since its premiere with its near commedia dell’arte characters acting out a hilarious tale of Buoso Donati’s greedy relatives who, left out of his will in favor of the monks, plot with the nouveaux-riche and clever Gianni Schicchi to create a fake will leaving equal portions to them and the cream of the property to whoever can bribe Gianni. Since Florentine law proscribes confiscation of property upon penalty of banishment and the loss of a hand, the avaricious Donatis have barely to contain themselves as Gianni wills the “cream” to his dear friend, Gianni Schicchi. This will allow Rinnuccio Domati to marry Gianni’s daughter Lauretta. Her aria, “O mio babbino caro” convinces Gianni to fake the will and is a prime arrow in every soprano’s quiver. I have many fond memories of hearing Roberta Peters singing it at her many appearances in the Triangle in the 1970s.

Winston-Salem native, the dramatic soprano Jill Gardner was outstanding in both Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica. Her voice, even across its range, is strong enough to soar over Puccini’s emotional climaxes. Her control of color and dynamics was marvelous, as was her ability to convey fully the raw emotions of each character. Her intonation and diction were excellent.

Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan had the strongest contrast of characters to bring to life. In Il Tabarro, he was the frustrated bargeman Michele, brooding with a gradually-growing dark, threatening undertone. He leaped about the stage, like Errol Flynn, as the witty Gianni Schicchi. His voice had solid lows and an apt dark color as the bargeman, while his singing of Gianni was wider in dynamics and lighter in tone. His Michele was sympathetic until he took revenge, while his Gianni was a delightful con man. His voice was even across its range and well-supported.

Tenor Dongwon Shin‘s voice has just the right ring and weight to be an “ideal” Puccini tenor. His solos and duets as Luigi with Giorgetta in Il Tabrro were simply superb, with red-blooded passion soaring. He has a winning timbre and shades his voice expressively.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely has a solid lower register with a rich alto-like quality. Her voice is even across its range and her intonation is rock solid. She is a marvelous actress. She fully conveyed the simple dreams of Frugola, the refuse-collector wife of Talpa in Il Tabarro; she was terrific as the pompous, vindictive Princess in Suor Angelica; and she was hilarious as the greedy Zita, an aged cousin to Buoso Donati in Gianni Schicchi.

Victor Ryan Robertson‘s brief part as Tinca in Il Tabarro hinted at a fine-toned and strong tenor voice which was fully revealed as Rinuccio Donati in Gianni Schicchi. He was almost as acrobatic as Yuan, and he paired nicely with soprano Melinda Whittington, whose pure, even voice glowed in the great aria “O mio babbini caro.”

I wish the program book had listed more artists’ biographies. Among the solid cast contributions were bass Donald Hartmann as Talpa in Il Tabarro and Simone in Gianni Schicchi, tenor Noah Rice as Gherardo in Gianni Schicchi, and soprano Danielle Messina as Nella in Gianni Schicchi.

Conductor James Meena led marvelous performances of all three operas with a fine sense of style and close coordination between the pit and the stage. The Charlotte Symphony played beautifully with solid work from every section. Jay Lesenger’s stage direction was superb, with excellent blocking of extras as well as the main cast. Eric Renschler had originally designed the sets for Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi for Chautauqua Opera. Il Tabarro director Tim Parati adapted architectural elements from Renschler’s sets to create a view dominated by half of Michele’s barge with the Seine promenade behind it and backed with a chiaroscuro evocation of the distant Notre Dame cathedral created by Projection Designer Michael Baumgarten. It was a nice touch, in Gianni Schicchi, to have Filipp Brunelleschi’s famous dome on the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flowers visible through the window when a greedy Donati steals the headboard of the deathbed. The very effective use of lighting was designed by Michael Baumgarten.

Trittico is being repeated on Thursday and Sunday, January 23 and 26. For details, see the sidebar. Do not miss catching one of the repeat performances!

(Updated 1/21/14 to clarify comments on the production. Typos corrected 1/23/14.)