Scottish Opera’s upcoming production of Puccini’s Il trittico is not for the faint of heart. Rarely are the three one-act operas performed as a triptych (three pieces, performed sequentially) like Puccini originally intended, as its sheer scale is, well, not for the faint-hearted. Go for the thrill of Il tabarro, linger for the trauma of Angelica, and stay for the comedic farce of Gianni Schicchi. SNACK chats with set designer Charles Edwards about how Il trittico is worth the heartache, the blood, the sweat, and the tears.
What do you think the triptych format offers that stand-alone performances just can’t provide?
I think you’re seeing three different ways of looking at life. The first, Il tabarro, is like a thriller. It’s like when you watch a murder mystery on TV, there’s some sort of curious enjoyment of the crime. It always troubles me, what it’s doing to our psyche as viewers when you watch something [like that]. There’s something strange about the way we indulge ourselves in the thrill of it.
Then the emotional impact of Suor Angelica is staggeringly direct. It’s heartbreaking in a way that we don’t indulge ourselves; it simply strips the soul. You’re almost ashamed of the gory pleasure you got out of watching the Grand Guignol tabarro by the time you get to the end of Angelica. It takes you deeper into the emotional world of Giorgetta and Michele in tabarro who have lost a child. It ends with the sentiment that we all die, we all have to go somewhere.
The last opera is a rip-roaring farce. I think it’s the funniest opera ever written, but the first thing that happens in Gianni Schicchi is somebody dies, and we then spend the rest of the opera laughing about it, laughing at the family, sympathising with the family, identifying with people in the family. And you know, we’ve all got families, haven’t we?
Of course, it’s possible to do them all separately, they stand on their own more or less, but the way they co-relate when you do them all is very much what Puccini wanted. He was against the idea of the piece being broken up, he didn’t think had written three one-act operas and stuffed them together. They were written at the same time and it was supposed to be an entity.
It’s tricky to put it on because it’s a big evening. It’s a long evening. It’s an emotionally traumatic, full on roller coaster of an evening. So it’s tough for the audience. It’s tough for the singers and the orchestra is intense music. It’s three separate sets, and it’s not cheap. So there are reasons why it isn’t done like that, but it’s great that Scottish Opera has decided to do it this way.
Apparently Puccini wanted to convey hell, purgatory and paradise in Il trittico, inspired by Dante’s inferno. Did any of this original inspiration find its way into your set design?
That’s very pivotal to Gianni Schicchi. At the very end, Gianni turns and speaks to us, he doesn’t sing to the audience and reminds us that the little character of Gianni Schicchi in Dante’s Inferno is consigned to hell for rewriting the will. He invites the audience to make their own mind up about whether or not that was justified and makes us a little bit complicit in that as well.
You’ve done the set design for many operas in the past. This being effectively three operas in one, would you say it’s your most challenging to date?
In a way, I mean, it’s just in terms of the volume of material. It’s like doing three operas so it’s a challenge for that from that point of view. We’ve decided to be very faithful to the spirit of the piece, and when you do Puccini operas there’s always a sense, whatever you do on stage has to have a reality about it. He has a very specific theatrical style and it’s interesting watching these rehearsals today. It’s like a very, very, tightly constructed machine very, very well-oiled, and you play with that at your peril. But at the same time, it gives you so much that you just have to be faithful to it. You can move the period, the setting, you can emphasise certain aspects, and you can play with characterisation up to a point, but to some extent, they are relatively fixed pieces.
We’ve played with the period and updated it to some extent to bring it a little closer to our own times and our own culture here in Scotland. We’re not transposing everything entirely to a different place, but we are picking up aspects of the social world in Glasgow in the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s. The piece should have a little bit of the personality of that, the personality of Glasgow, because the audience here will identify with that. And even if they think ‘are they in Florence, or in Glasgow?’, it doesn’t really matter, because the specificity of the location is so clear. We wanted to use it as a way to lever people into the dramas themselves.
SNACK spoke with location manager Lloret MacKenna Dunn a while back who said location is a character in itself, and this idea definitely lends itself to stage design too. Do you feel that each set has a character?
Oh yeah, definitely. That’s been the pleasure of doing the pieces in very different designs. What they all have in common is claustrophobia. All three pieces have a sense that people are trapped really desperately. In Gianni Schicchi it’s – in a comic way – in a ghastly room that everybody’s waiting for this man to die in, in a tenement somewhere in Glasgow.
But they’re also very divergent. I wanted us to use colour in a way that also gave us a sense of the location. So there’s something about the red-y black sandstone that so much of Glasgow was built out of, which is also saturated with soot because it’s an industrial town; I’m trying to think of what Glasgow was like before they cleaned it up. The colour of that stone makes me think of dried blood, as well. You should be able to smell the soot, the coal dust, and the damp that gets into your bones.
Each opera, each set has to be a personality, it has to be a character. Angelica is this desperate, pale character. It’s empty, and boring as hell. I was talking about this a lot with David [McVicar, director] who said the beginning of the piece is just awful, just so bare. And I said, that’s what it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be dreary, it’s like being in a prison. These people are trapped together, and the most exciting thing that happens is that a little bit of light comes through a window and illuminates a fountain, which only happens once every few months and it lights up your day. Or someone brings you some strawberries or a little bit of cheese and it can be the biggest event that ever happens in their life. I had to find a way of matching that mundanity with a set, it has to take on that personality.
With Schicchi, our idea is that Buoso Donati, the character who dies at the beginning of the piece is dying of emphysema brought on by his 60 cigarettes-a-day habit, and the whole room is basically like the inside of his lungs. It’s covered in tar. It’s like those old pubs used to go into before smoking was banned, where if you touched the wall, your fingers stuck to it. Yellowy brown and grey.
It’s like three people! I always think that sets have to have as much personality as any of the cast. And for that reason, when I’m working on the show, I have to be in rehearsal all the time. Otherwise, I don’t know how to behave, I didn’t know how my set should behave. Even though I designed it months ago, you just make subtle variations. I get a feel about what a prop should be by watching the characters and how they perform, and I need the time in the rehearsal to do that. I think some designers just find it easier to go away sometimes, but I need to be in the room all the time.
Do you have a favourite, or is it like picking favourite children?
I think it’s almost impossible to say. Angelica is the Cinderella of the piece in terms of public perception. I think it might be Angelica because – oh my god – I love sad operas. I’m basically the drama queen so I prefer the sad things. Gianni Schicchi will always make me laugh, but I’ve also done it twice before, so it’s very familiar to me. But to have a chance to do Angelica, which sometimes gets pushed down the pile. It’s not the most obvious, it doesn’t hit you between the eyes at the beginning. It’s a real slow burner. But it’s the apotheosis of what one of Puccini’s talents was, which was his ability to wrench your heart out.
What was especially gratifying about doing it this time is that she doesn’t. She’s a strong character, Angelica, she makes a very strong decision and she stands up to her ghastly aunt really very directly. And the way Sunyoung [Seo, actor playing Angelica] is playing it is so refreshingly empowered, which doesn’t always happen with some of Puccini’s ‘Little Women’, as they were referred to. I find it extremely interesting that it’s written in that way, it’s engaging and really strong to put on stage for the public nowadays. So yeah, Angelica by a margin, but I love them all.
One of the things I love about Puccini is that he spends at least half the opera setting up where you are, giving you background, giving you colour, local colour, location, atmosphere. He is the most brilliant atmosphericist – I’m inventing words now – he creates a world unlike any other composer. He’s got the capacity to paint a picture; you get colours and you can smell things when you listen to this music. It’s completely there. He wasn’t afraid of embracing modern technology and having stage sound effects, he really was so interested in giving you in an aural way what it’s my job to match visually.
Il trittico is playing at Theatre Royal Glasgow 11th, 15th and 18th March, and at Festival Theatre Edinburgh 22nd and 25th March