Under the right conditions, "Il Trittico" can seem like the best deal in the opera world. Puccini's "triptych" of one-acts gives audiences three operas for the price of one, and each is a completely realized work by the master who had already composed "La Bohème" and "Madama Butterfly."
Yet audiences at the new San Francisco Opera production may feel the investment is one of diminishing returns. Tuesday's opening-night performance at the War Memorial Opera House, which ran for a hefty three hours and 20 minutes (with two intermissions), started strong but ran out of thrills quite awhile before the final curtain.
The problem may have to do with the nature of this 1918 Puccini work. Although the composer envisioned the operas — the verismo drama "Il Tabarro," the religious tragedy "Suor Angelica" and the comedy "Gianni Schicchi" — would be performed in a single evening, companies have been ignoring his wishes for nearly a century. San Francisco Opera has done the complete triptych only twice earlier in its 87-year history, most recently in 1952. Many companies opt for two in a single evening; all three may be too much of a good thing.
In any case, there's an uneven quality to the current production, created by director James Robinson for New York City Opera. The evening started forcefully with "Il Tabarro," faltered a bit with "Suor Angelica," then sputtered out in "Gianni Schicchi" — which, ironically, is the best-loved of the three.
That's not to say Tuesday's performance, which repeats through Oct. 3, was a loss. There are excellent reasons to see this "Trittico," most notably the performances of Patricia Racette in the principal soprano role of each of the three operas. That's an epic undertaking, and Racette pulls it off with dramatically varied, vocally resplendent performances.
The production's other chief asset is conductor Patrick Summers. Starting his new post as the company's principal guest conductor, he led a grandly scaled performance designed to highlight the contrasts among the scores.
The evening begins with "Il Tabarro," a small masterpiece set aboard a barge on the Seine in 19th-century Paris. Puccini gave it some of his finest writing, including an introduction of Debussy-like clarity and a wealth of dark orchestration punctuated by interludes of lyrical beauty. And the story — a love triangle yielding to jealousy and murder — is gripping. As Giorgetta, Racette simply burned with the desire of a young wife married to the boss but in love with one of his employees; baritone Paolo Gavanelli exuded menace as the husband, Michele; and tenor Brandon Jovanovich sang with urgency as the stevedore Luigi. Catherine Cook's La Frugola and Thomas Glenn's Song Vendor made strong contributions.
"Suor Angelica," about a young nun shattered by news from her buried past, isn't as easy to warm to; although this was Puccini's favorite part of the triptych, the atmosphere is cool and the action often static. But Racette gave her best performance of the night in the title role — capped by the haunting aria "Senza Mamma" — and the production, updated to a 20th-century Catholic hospital, had lots of visual interest. Best of all, it featured an arresting performance by Ewa Podles. Making her San Francisco Opera debut, the Polish contralto sang with large, lustrous tone, investing the role of the Principessa with absolute authority.
That left "Gianni Schicchi." The humor of Puccini's only outright comic opera — about a mean-spirited family gathered for the reading of their dead relative's will — is delightfully black but oddly blunted in Robinson's production. Set in a garish black-and-white op-art hospital room, the director's concept pushed too hard for laughs and came up mostly empty. Still, Racette (as Lauretta) sang prettily in the big showpiece aria ("O Mio Babbino Caro"), and Gavanelli was likable in the title role.
The supporting casts featured singers from the San Francisco Opera's Adler Fellowship Program, including current participantsTamara Wapinsky, David Lomeli, Daniela Mack, Daveda Karanas, Renee Tatum, Leah Crocetto, Heidi Melton, Austin Kness and Kenneth Kellogg. Along with Racette, an Adler alum, they acquitted themselves well.