Il Tabarro (The Cloak) is one of Giacomo Puccini’s three one-act operas that make up Il trittico (The Triptych). Based on Didier Gold’s play La houppelande, the libretto was written by Giuseppe Adami and first premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in late 1918.
This concert staging with the Hallé Orchestra and Philharmonia Voices was conducted by Sir Mark Elder and part of the 19th concert at the BBC Proms in 2022.
The setting is Paris in 1910, where a barge is being unloaded. The barge belongs to Michele (Lucio Gallo) and his considerably younger wife Giorgetta (Natalya Romaniw), who has an affair with the stevedore Luigi (Adam Smith). The plot takes place over a single evening, with dancing, singing, drinking … and murder.
Annunziata Vestri – La Frugola
Alasdair Elliott – Tinca
Simon Shibambu – Talpa
Shengzhi Ren – Ballad-Seller
Laura Lolita Perešivana – Lover
Ryan Vaughan Davies – Lover
This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.
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Francis: Good morning, good afternoon and good evening! Today I feel we’re going high-brow.
Traxy: Why? Opera is always a bit high-brow. What sets this one apart?
F: It’s from the BBC Proms!
T: Classical music for the masses isn’t that high-brow, is it?
F: The BBC is classy. That’s my comfortable delusion and I’m sticking to it.
T: It’s prime time telly, if anything, and this was another concert staging.
F: Which is why we’re talking about it. I didn’t see Parsifal, so how does this one compare to your Wagner experience?
T: It was shorter, for starters.
F: Not even an hour long, sure. Il Tabarro is only one act. It’s like the short story of operas.
T: But I really preferred it over Parsifal.
F: I could argue what you prefer is Puccini over Wagner – because what person in their right mind don’t? – but you’re going to tell me that has nothing to do with it.
T: I mean it might have a little to do with it.
F: I knew it!
T: It just told much more of a story in that hour than it felt Parsifal accomplished in five. No, but seriously, things were happening from start to finish. There was a smaller cast, fewer characters.
F: And you could tell them apart?
T: Yes! That’s always a bonus, isn’t it?
F: Makes things easier for sure. So this concert staging. You didn’t like it last time, but this was okay?
T: Yes. Maybe because of the shorter length and limited cast. More straightforward plot.
F: Nearly everything’s more straightforward than Parsifal. Less need for props too?
T: Yes, but they were missing a cloak. La Frugola was wearing a shawl or a blanket or whatever when she came on stage, why didn’t they use that as the eponymous cloak at the end?
F: Great minds think alike. The prop was already there, why not use it? They acted out the dancing, so why not use a prop for the big reveal at the end?
T: Instead it was unclear whether Michele actually murdered Giorgetta or not, which is kind of the crux of the story, no?
F: What are you talking about? He only kills Luigi, not both of them.
T: Oh. He does? I must have misunderstood, then.
F: Yeah. There is only a single homicide in the libretto, not a double. Would it have stupid to make the ending unclear when it ain’t written that way? Sure it would, but no, that ain’t the case.
F: You know that also really ain’t written that way? Those boat horns.
T: What about them? I thought they were incredibly atmospheric. Really helped to set the scene by the docks, although I actually thought they were fog horns.
F: They were too loud. They’re supposed to be distant.
T: I thought they were in the distance? They weren’t exactly in your face.
F: No, no, no. Too loud.
T: But is that your only complaint about this entire production?
F: Thinking back on it … yes, probably? I enjoyed it. Concert staging and all. There was some kind of charm to it.
T: I liked that they all had different clothing, and that La Frugola really went all in on her portrayal.
F: One crazy cat lady recognizing another?
T: I mean I did enjoy her singing about her tabby cat, Caporale. I might have to put that on the list of potential names for a future cat.
F: Call him Capo for short, and have him run his own crew in charge of the neighborhood catnip racket.
T: … You’ve watched too many gangster movies.
F: No such thing as too many gangster movies. Just like there’s no such thing as too many operas. That’s a fact right there.
T: That you’ve just made up.
F: Tomayto, tomahto.
T: But anyway. I did like how La Frugola was dressed up, and all the singers being dressed differently meant it was easier to distinguish them from each other, but then they all looked very different as well. One even had a half tucked in shirt, the rogue!
F: It’s amazing how something so small can tell you so much about a character.
T: And then there were some things that were questionable at best.
F: Yeah? Which one?
T: This bit:
Michele: Have I ever caused a scene?
Giorgetta: You certainly have not; you don’t beat me.
Michele: What? You want me to?
Giorgetta: To your occasional silences, yes. I would prefer to be beaten till I’m bruised!
F: Oh. Yeah. That one.
T: The assertion that Giorgietta would prefer bruises to silence. That’s … How broken does your marriage – and you as a person – need to be for you to go “fuck it, you’re not going to talk to me, beat me instead”?
F: It’s messed up, and I don’t condone it, but they lost a kid. They’re still grieving. Grief can make you say and do crazy things sometimes.
T: Grief is why they’re not talking to each other, but wishing your husband would beat you black and blue instead of him being a bit quiet now and then?
F: I don’t get it either to be honest. I prefer talking over giving my partner the silent treatment. I sure as hell wouldn’t want her to hope I’d be physically abusive to her instead of talking to her. That ain’t right.
T: But then you’re not an arsehole.
F: I sure try not to be! If my hypothetical future wife and I ever lost a child, we’ll be in it together. Although these days it’s a lot easier to seek out therapy than it was when the opera takes place.
T: That’s true.
F: And nowadays there are still people who clam up instead of talking when they’re grieving. Grief needs an outlet in some way. Bottling it up inside is never a good idea.
T: Do you have a preferred outlet?
F: “Preferred”? No, but as an angry teenager boxing probably saved my life.
T: Taking out your grief and anger on an actual punching bag, as opposed to finding other people to use as punching bags?
T: That makes sense. I just cry, I guess.
F: Crying is also an outlet. Long as it ain’t self-destructive or harmful to others, you do what you gotta do, you know?
T: I suppose.
F: One thing I personally like about Il Tabarro specifically is that it has a few memorable lines from it. Okay, so the one we just talked about is memorable for all the wrong reasons, but there are some that make very good points.
T: Which ones were you thinking of?
F: There’s this one:
Wine is good for me!
In it I drown rebellious thoughts;
if I drink, I don’t think,
and if I think, I don’t laugh!
T: Drowning your sorrows is a tale as old as time.
F: And is why Prohibition was never going to work. People drink to forget.
T: Well, that’s one reason for it, at least.
F: Another line that always resonates with me is this one:
It’s better to be master in a hovel
than to serve in a palace.
T: Any particular reason?
F: I like being my own boss.
T: Fair point. I do as well. Now, let me guess which song is your favourite.
F: Sure, go on.
T: The Belleville anthem, about how they’re city folk and they love their part of town. They’re singing about Paris, but I’m picturing you replacing the place names with your home turf, and it sounds equally valid.
F: Okay, wow. You know me a little too well.
T: So it’s true?
F: I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you. Will neither confirm nor deny, I plead the Fifth and so on. Which song was your favorite?
T: I don’t know, city boy. Michele’s “my wife is a slut” song sounded a lot like 1940s DRAMATIC!! MUSIC!! but that doesn’t make it a favourite by any means. Maybe I’ll still go with La Frugola singing about her cat. Just because.
F: Great choice. I hope we come across the rest of The Triptych so you can get a full house and so we can compare them.
T: That would be nice. We’ll have to keep an eye out.
F: We will. Did you recognize any of the performers?
T: I’ve definitely seen Natalya Romaniw before. She was Mimì in that open air production in English of La Bohème from the English National Opera. The rest I don’t know, at least not that I recall? But they were good.
F: They wouldn’t be performing at the Royal Albert Hall if they weren’t. Hey, do you have that joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall, but say the Royal Albert Hall instead?
T: No, I’ve only ever heard the joke as Carnegie Hall.
F: So if I were to ask, “How do you get to the Royal Albert Hall?” the answer would be?
T: According to the map, I’m guessing it’s “take the Tube to South Kensington, then walk up Exhibition Road …”
F: What about those black cabs I’ve heard so much about?
T: Oh yeah, or take a taxi. I quite like the London Underground, though.
T: Yeah. It gets you places.
F: So does any subway system. That’s why it’s there.
T: London is cosmopolitan and cool and the tourists love it, although they make a huge mistake if they think visiting London is the same as living in a place like Nottingham or Scunthorpe. Or Finchley.
F: You mean like staying a couple days in a Manhattan hotel as a tourist will not be an adequate representation of what it’s like living in rural Idaho, or downtown Detroit, or Flatbush?
T: Right? It’s like Disneyland, it’s like it’s not real. Of course you’re going to fall in love with a place if all you’ve ever seen of are the Disneyland parts, right?
F: For sure.
T: As a tourist, hopping on the Bakerloo Line to Baker Street to go to Madame Tussaud’s or Regent’s Park or London Zoo is amazing. But having to go on the Tube at rush hour every morning and afternoon, crammed in sweaty? Yeah, I can see it losing its charm pretty quickly.
F: That’s exactly it. That’s why you can’t see why people would find Nottingham fun to visit. You’re too used to it. Can’t see the forest for the trees.
T: True. But Nottingham could really do with upgrading their tourist attractions. I’m just saying. We live here and don’t go into town that often.
F: Unless you’re going to the opera!
T: For instance.
F: No, I get it, we can’t all be from photogenic tourist traps. Now, before the customary aside, we were discussing Puccini’s Cloak, which we both enjoyed.
T: We did.
F: Not a big fan of concert stagings myself, but it was tolerable and befitting the televised format.
F: Hey, I’m a traditionalist. Give me fully realized sets and intricate costumes any day. I enjoy the spectacle of opera so much that concert stagings feel like you’re eating under-seasoned food, and you know how I feel about food.
T: I still think this had more “flavour” than Parsifal, though.
F: Of course. It was good for what it was. Still hoping the other two parts will be fully staged. When we find them in a place convenient to us both. Maybe next year’s Proms?
T: Still have a long list to get through until then. What do you want to do for next month? We don’t have a Christmas one lined up, do we?
F: Not Christmas themed specifically, but La Bohème starts out on Christmas Eve.
T: Close enough!
F: We’ll think about it. Concluding thoughts?
T: Plenty to like about Il Tabarro. Cats, a love triangle, fog horns …
F: Man, I love Puccini. Anyway. We’ll be back same time next month for more random tangents. A presto!