Il Trittico is a work that often receivs rather perfunctory musical and thematic analysis. Although this is a problem that extends to all of Puccini's works, it is particularly galling that critics insist on describing the three operas as unrelated except for the fact that Puccini though that it would be cool to have three operas in one evening. Although it is true that he had long considered undertaking such a project before he started work on Il Trittico, that is not the only connection that the operas have. Taken together, they can be seen as an homage to Dante's Commedia through the modern mind. Despite what the Kerman's of the world would have us believe, Puccini was an educated and thoughtful man, and it is entirely conceivable that he intended on some level for the comparison: Il Tabarro - Inferno; Suor Angelica - Purgatorio; Gianni Schicchi - Paradiso. But even if he didn't, the comparison is still valid.
Tabarro is about the poor, and what misery and torment can do to a person. It is a psychological drama, and not a moral one, as in Dante. In the Inferno, there is no gate guarding the 'prisoners' of hell. Only an inscription that says something about 'Divine Love'. This can be a bit confusing. How could divine love sentence somebody to eternal torment, especially if God is as all-forgiving as we are told? But the fact of the matter is that the people in Dante's hell are free to leave at any time. They are trapped there by their own hubris, their own lust, their own hate. It is quite literally a Hell of Their Own Making. There are no punishments, at least not in the true sense of the word. A punishment is imposed by an authority; God is not doing anything to the souls in hell. Instead, the contrapasso is merely the consequence of an action, like an angry neighbor and some slashed tires is the result of playing your opera recordings too loudly, or (perhaps a better example) an injured toe is the result of kicking things out of anger. Even the devil himself could leave Hell at anytime if he repented. He is flying away from God, and the beating of his wings is so furious that it is cooling the air, and forming the ice that binds him. He has created his own strictures. In Il tabarro, however, the hell here is twofold: the psychological experience of the characters, and the misery that envelops them, as well as the physical poverty in which they live. There is starvation and the threat of death all around. And a life dominated by the fear of death soon becomes less desirable than death itself. It is hard to say which one of these two conditions causes the other, or if perhaps they exist only in parallel. But one thing is for certain: the characters are not as free to leave their hell as Dante's. Luigi wants to leave Paris by going to Rouen, but if he does he will likely starve there. Michele is trying to make a better life by working hard and being patient, but his efforts just don't pay off. The poverty that is here is imposed, and like all modern poverty it is an agenda of the powerful, not a consequence of circumstance. This is the commentary, and it wonderfully made through both music and text. (A short review of the music itself: possibly the most inventive opera score ever written. Puccini's genius is on full display here, with ubiquitous melody and interesting harmonization, as well as an almost Wagnerian development of the opening motif. Listen for the changes changes...)
Out of hell we must come, and into Purgatory. The change of mood from Tabarro to Angelica is enormous. There is not only light here, and bright color, but there is hope. Puccini grew up as an organist in the church in Lucca, and he demonstrates here that he knows church music very well. The religious aura of this piece is spot on. The comparison to Dante is rather more straightforward here. The opera is quite obviously about redemption, which is the crux the Purgatorio as well. The monastic setting is another possible allusion, as is the fact that Suor Angelica spends seven years in the convent, which could be a reference to the seven terraces of Purgatory described by Dante. Though frequently described as a sentimental tragedy, Suor Angelica is really not a tragedy at all: it is a salvation. This parallel with the Commedia is why the productions that sometimes pop up where the miracle is turned into a mad scene are particularly offensive to me: it shows a complete lack of understanding of the work. My message to directors and musicologists who insist that they are justified in these changes because the they find the end unconvincing as a miracle: write your own work. This is Puccini's, so present it as he intended. Fortunately, that is what is done here. Domas really believes the miracle, and the orchestral peroration after 'Salvami!' is absolutely gorgeous. You can really feel the miracle glow, as it says in the libretto. Puccini is often accused of sentimentality (as if sentimentality is some sort of crime that one is accused of, like murder), but there is no "Pity me because I'm angsty", self involved heroine here. The situation that occurs here is very realistic for the time period in which it is set. And the grief of a mother for her child. Why is that "sentimental" but the irrational desires of Tristan and Isolde are not? It strikes me as being a very practical matter indeed. Mothers lose children all the time, and each mother that does feels the loss and the pain. The fact that Puccini could relate to this shows what a power of empathy the man really had. I apologive for my ever widening digressions that may not be helpful to some people who know, and like the operas but want to know if this recording is worth it's cost. I suppose that I have taken the opportunity of this review to vent some long held frustrations.
The irony of Gianni Schicchi is that Schicchi's character and story are taken from the Inferno. This might lead one to think, "How could this be heaven then?" Well, if we take our lens of irony and look at the story and at moral climate of Europe at the time when the opera was written, we can see that there was quite a big difference from that of the late middle ages/early renaissance, when Dante was writing. I think the commentary is that what would have landed Schicchi in hell in Dante's time, would be considered merely cleverness, and possibly even a better use of the money in Puccini's time. And Puccini may agree with that. I do, to some extent. I think that Rinuccio and Lauretta are far more worthy of the fortune than the Donati, and in addition I would add that Schicchi didn't take all of it for himself. These facts don't make his actions right per se, but they do grant at least a modicum of, as he asks for, extenuating circumstances. The other theme of importance here is of new life. Renaissance means rebirth, and so the story of a new couple being allowed to pursue their love at the expense of the old order of avarice is, in a way, a hopeful one. It's kind of like the powerful men who keep the characters of Tabarro in their poverty get their comeuppance in Schicchi. There is also a message of tolerance in 'Firenze e como un albero fiorito' however self serving that message is on the part of Rinuccio. But the central message of Dante's commedia is that love is the most powerful force in the universe, that it is God. And there can hardly be a more powerful affirmation of the power and beauty of love than 'O mio babbino caro'.
This recording of these three masterpieces is the best that I have heard, even of the individual works. The singers, the orchestra's, the sound, the conducting are all marvelous. Highly recommended, as good fun, and as a truly unique work of art.