Pacific Opera Victoria tackles ‘Everest’ that is Il Trittico

ON STAGE

What: Il Trittico
Where: Royal Theatre
When: Through Oct. 27
Tickets: $29-$183 from the Royal McPherson box office, (250-386-6121) rmts.bc.ca

The level of difficulty facing director Glynis Leyshon was high during rehearsals for Il Trittico, the season-opening production for Pacific Opera Victoria. But the rewards were plentiful.

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“It’s not obvious on any level as an assignment,” said Leyshon, who has directed dozens of major operas during her career. “That’s why it is so rarely done, except by very large companies. But we’re well aware of the honour of it. This is [Mount] Everest. This isn’t a rinky-dinky little mountain we’re climbing here.”

Pacific Opera Victoria has been defined by that positive attitude toward challenging work for the better part of its 40 years, taking on operas many other companies would never touch.

Case in point: Giacomo Puccini’s Il Trittico. When you’re working with a classic such as Madama Butterfly or Carmen, adding something new to a production many have seen countless times is the main goal.

With Il Trittico, which is rarely performed in Canada, the challenge is inspiring audience appreciation for a largely unknown trio of chamber works that can seem, at times, at odds with each other.

“A lot of people will not have seen any of them, though they will be familiar with Puccini’s music,” Leyshon said. The aria O mio babbino caro, in fact, is one of the most popular in opera.

“They are not done that often as chamber works and they are very different stylistically, which is fascinating.”

Il Trittico was given a unique twist for the upcoming production, which opens tonight and runs through Oct. 27. Space concerns meant a single shape-shifting set will be used for all three one-act operas.

A coherent visual picture will unite the stories, set in 1918 Paris, Leyshon said.

Though composer Puccini meant for the three one-act operas that make up Il Trittico to be presented in a single evening, Suor Angelica — a female-led tragedy — is notoriously difficult.

As a result, it is often performed on its own, away from Il tabarro, a thriller with noir-ish melodrama, and Gianni Schicchi, a farcical comedy.

The Pacific Opera Victoria production will mark the first time a Western Canadian company has presented Il Trittico as the composer intended.

“The connective energy of the music, how it touches us, is compelling,” Leyshon said.

Leyshon was impressed by the heavy lifting undertaken by the four principal singers — soprano Aviva Fortunata, tenor Adam Luther, baritone Todd Thomas and soprano Lara Ciekiewicz — and noted how well the members of the chorus performed with such rigorous demands.

“It was fascinating, actually, seeing all the forces that have to be assembled to be able to do all three in one evening.”

Philadelphia baritone Thomas will tackle lead roles in two productions — a third would have been almost impossible, given the constraints on his voice (and the fact there are no male parts in Suor Angelica).

Timothy Vernon, artistic director for Pacific Opera Victoria, has always hired Thomas for parts that were not previously on his resumé. True to form, the singer-actor’s fourth production with Pacific Opera Victoria will mark his first attempt at Il Trittico.

“It’s a lot,” Thomas said with a laugh. “Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi really have me working hard, all the time.”

Il Trittico is a big production that requires experienced singers. Thomas and fellow leads have had to throw themselves into the production as a result, he said.

“There are roles you can use younger singers in, but this is not it. There are points where I’m asking myself: ‘Why am I doing this?’ I have done Puccini before, so I’m in a familiar forest. But these are new trees.”

Not unlike early productions of Carmen, Il Trittico fell on deaf ears when it was released in 1918. Critical appreciation of it grew over time, and it is now considered a classic.

That doesn’t surprise Leyshon, who has learned during her career that great art always wins out. That played into the decision to stage such a difficult production to open Pacific Opera Victoria’s upcoming season.

“Great writers, great artists, great creators can push an audience into something that is not just the same old, same old,” she said.

“All of a sudden, it offers something musically and dramatically. That, after all, is part of what art should and must do — not only reflect our world, but, through a specific lens, illuminate our world.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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