SA singers superb in operatic melodrama

William Charlton-Perkins reviews an all-stops-out new audio release of Puccini’s one-act Grand Guignol masterpiece, Il Tabarro.

A superb vehicle for great singing actors, Puccini’s Il Tabarro (The Cloak) was the first of the composer’s three one-act operas, collectively known as Il Trittico. It premiered at the Metropolitan in New York in December of 1918, along with its companion pieces, the tragic Suor Angelica, and the comedy, Gianni Schicchi. The link between these disparate works is that each deals with a concealed death.

Set on the Seine in Paris, the Grand Guignol plot of Il Tabarro devolves around a turbulent emotional triangle. Michele (baritone), a barge owner, suspects his wife Giorgetta (soprano) of unfaithfulness, but tries to win her back by reminding her of how she used to shelter under his cloak. She has arranged a meeting with her lover, the stevedore Luigi (tenor), who mistakes Michelle’s lighting his pipe for the signal that the coast is clear. Michele kills him and covers the body with his cloak. When Giorgetta appears, Michele tells her to come under the cloak again; then reveals Luigi’s body and flings her down on top of her dead lover.

Gritty operatic melodrama to rival any in the field.

A new CD of Il Tabarro has just been released on the Capriccio label. The recording, which captures a live concert performance made in Vienna in 2010, plays to the work’s strengths, with a cast headed by the great South African dramatic tenor, the late Johan Botha as Luigi, and his compatriot, the creamy-voiced lirico spinto soprano, Elza van den Heever as Giorgetta.

Offset by conductor Bertrand di Billy’s dynamic presence at the head of the ORF Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the power of Ms van den Heever and Mr Botha’s rhapsodic singing at the climax of in their reminiscence episode (track 9) is spine-tingling, almost (but not quite) eclipsing the visceral impact of Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo at the peak of their magnificent form in Lorin Maazel’s famous 1977 Sony Classical recording.

Hearing Botha and van den Heever triumphantly riding the waves of Puccini’s quintessential groundswell of passion (track 11) is enough to induce a rush of pride in any South African opera-lover’s heart, underlining the terrible loss the tenor’s premature demise two years ago was to the international music scene.

Baritone Wolfgang Koch delivers a convincingly trouble-wracked portrayal of the vengeful cuckold, Michele. With a strong support cast and recorded sound that captures all the production values of a live recording, without any unwonted sonic distractions, this release is strongly recommended.

South African collectors can purchase the disc from Classics4U, who advise they will have stocks in mid-June 2018. Inbox Estelle Pienaar at classics@music4u.co.za or contact her via facebook/4UClassics; or twitter/4UClassics.