Three Operas, Reunited: Puccini's 'Il Trittico'

One-act operas tend to be like singles at a sock hop. Without the right partner, there aren't many chances to hit the dance floor.

There is at least one pair of single act operas that became an established couple early on. Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci weren't originally meant as a team, but their pairing is so popular that they're often called by a single bit of hyphenated, operatic slang: "Cav-Pag."

But there are other one-acters that haven't been so fortunate -- including three, by one of opera's most popular composers, that were intended as a single bill, yet are seldom heard that way.

Through much of his career, Giacomo Puccini had the notion of composing a triple-bill of short operas. But his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, discouraged the idea, predicting it would be a non-starter at the box-office. Then, in 1912, two things happened. Ricordi died, and Puccini saw a play that finally got his long-pondered triptych underway.

The play was La houppelande, by Didier Gold, named for a traditional, flowing garment -- a sort of billowy cloak. Puccini admired the drama immediately, describing it as "Grand Guignol," after the famous Paris puppet theater with a name that's become a catchphrase for shows depicting graphic horror.

By 1916, Puccini had turned Gold's play into an opera called Il Tabarro -- The Cloak. He completed the second opera in his triptych, Suor Angelica, two years later. It couldn't be more different -- a somber story set in a convent, and steeped in religious mysticism. Not long after, Puccini finished off the set with another change of dramatic direction, Gianni Schicchi, the composer's only outright comedy. Puccini called his trio of operas Il Trittico, and it premiered at the Metropolitan in New York, in December of 1918.

In the end, Ricordi may have been right; the three dramas of Il Trittico are seldom heard on the same bill. But the reasons for that may be more practical than artistic. Together, the operas add up to nearly three hours of music -- a long evening in modern opera houses. They also demand three very different stage sets and an extensive cast of top-notch performers, which can quickly become expensive.

Yet from time to time, an opera company steps to the plate and fulfills the composer's vision just as he intended, as an operatic triple header -- and that's what happened in a production from northern Germany.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Puccini's Il Trittico from the Hanover State Opera. The stars are baritone Brian Davis and soprano Kelly God, as the troubled couple in Il Tabarro; soprano Miriam Gordon-Stewart in the title role of Suor Angelica; and baritone Stefan Adam as the charismatic rogue who steals the show -- and a whole lot more -- in Gianni Schicchi. The production is led by the American conductor Karen Kamensek.