On Site Opera covers the waterfront with Puccini’s “Il tabarro”

Mon May 15, 2023 at 12:54 pm
On Site Opera presented a production of Puccini’s Il tabarro, performed at the South Street Seaport Sunday night. Photo: Dan Wright

Opera productions are based in artifice. The stage set and costuming is of course artificial, and so is the very form, with characters who sing to themselves and each other instead of speaking. One of the pleasures of an opera performance is just how far beyond real life it can go while still being dramatically meaningful.

On Site Opera’s production of Puccini’s short Il tabarro—the first in his Il trittico trilogy of one act operas—has that artifice, with the performers in early 20th century dress singing to each other and themselves in Italian. 

The company’s purpose, though, is site-specific performances. For this opera, which takes place on and around a barge, that means being staged on the lightship Ambrose, docked at the South Street Seaport. 

The concept and the choices for this production—which opened Sunday evening—the intelligence that went into the staging, and the skill of the singers made for a special experience that approached reality.

Il tabarro is about as simple as opera gets, with a love triangle between the barge captain Michele (baritone Eric McKeever), his wife Giorgetta (soprano Ashley Milanese), and the stevedore Luigi (tenor Yi Li) that ends with murder. The variety and even humor in Puccini’s score, makes this more than cliché, and the vitality of the performances elevated this into something with genuine dramatic grip. And it all wraps up in an hour.

All the principals were excellent. Milanese had a rich, creamy sound and a sensuous feeling as Giorgetta, Mckeever had a sense of dignity in his singing that made Michele sympathetic, and Li was intense and powerful as Luigi. One of the unusual things about the opera is that neither Michele or Luigi are clear villains or heroes, there are ambiguities with each; what comes to a head is one’s sorrow and the other’s passion. McKeever and Li were outstanding in this regard, their performances circling the radiant Giorgetta in the middle.

Their articulation was also as fine as could be and this was not just another detail of the great singing but a key part of the drama. There was an uncommon naturalness in this type of performance, with Giorgetta’s “È ben altro il mio sogno!” and Michele’s “Nulla! Silenzio!” absolute statements of the characters thoughts, so direct as to make them more than just lovely singing of vocal phrases, but the kind of monologue that hits directly in the mind and heart.

The duet between Giorgetta and Luigi, when they reminisce about their hometown, was equally fine, the kind of intimacy within a public performance that is often approached but infrequently realized.

This naturalness in the singing was reinforced by the setting and staging, which combined for a completely unforced feeling. With the audience seated on the pier, the singers clambered on and off the Ambrose, and the simple combination of having characters who work on a barge (including tenor Jose Heredia as Tinca and bass-baritone Artega Wright as Talpa, both strong and easy) seeming to actually be at work made everything concrete. With pedestrians wandering around the perimeter at the pier, the comings and goings of La Frugola (the charming contralto Sharmay Musacchio) and the Song Seller (tenor Daniel Rosenberg, ably filling in for the scheduled Dane Suarez) were fluid and subtle. Experiencing the sheer movement of the characters around the site was as unremarkable as people watching, and credit goes to director Laine Rettmer for keeping the pace active without being hectic.

The same was true for the music making. Geoffrey McDonald conducted an alert, supple performance, with the tempos just right to support the superb vocal articulation. This is an amplified performance by necessity, being outside, ,and while the sound design did favor the singers it also hid portions of the orchestra from time to time. One was impressed by the quality of the coordination between singers and orchestra in this situation.

Being outdoors, there was also the sonic environment to contend with, not just passersby and other activity on the piers, but boats on the East River, traffic on the FDR Drive, and the usual helicopters overheard. But the production and the performances had such a grip that these barely registered, and nothing could divert the attention from this superior evening at the opera—on the pier, by the ship.

Il tabarro continues through May 17. osopera.org

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