Opera North Blog

Il tabarro in a nutshell

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Everything you need to know about Il tabarro in one place — right here! 

See Suor Angelica in a nutshell 

What is the story?

Il tabarro (or The Cloak) is a gripping one act thriller. At just over 50 minutes long, the high drama you’d expect from Italian opera is compacted, unfolding at an accelerated pace and hitting hard in the final moments.  

The story takes place in Paris, but not the glamorous or even bohemian Paris so often depicted in opera — we’re on the dark and seedy banks of the river Seine. It centres on barge owner Michele and his much younger wife Giorgetta, who has fallen out of love with her husband and longs for the city life of comfort she left behind. In this, she finds a soulmate in Luigi, a dockworker and employee of her husband, and it doesn’t take long for a spark to ignite and a passionate love affair to begin.

Planning to run away together, they make a secret assignation, but jealous husband Michele has smelt a rat. He waits in the dark for his wife’s lover to arrive — with a knife, and the cloak he used to use to wrap their child in…

Who are the characters?

Michele — a barge owner (baritone)
Giorgetta — his wife (soprano)
Luigi — a dockworker (tenor)
Tinca ‘tench’ — a dockworker (tenor)
Talpa ‘mole’ — a dockworker (bass)
La Frugola ‘scavenger’ — Talpa’s wife (mezzo-soprano)

Il tabarro is full of sharply defined characters, some referred to illustrative by nicknames!

What is the music like?

Il tabarro’s music is distinctively Puccini, especially the highly passionate duet between Luigi and Giorgetta, where tenor and soprano sing in unison, culminating in a high B reminiscent of any great Puccini love duet. Hear some of the opera's highly dramatic music below, sung by our own cast. 

Yet Il tabarro has a unique soundscape. Puccini paints the lapping water on which the story is set using an undulating ostinato which mesmerises the listener, drawing them further in. At the opera’s opening, the sound of a tug boat can be heard and pentatonic harmonies create an unsettled feeling. And, close to the finale, as Michele lies in wait for his wife’s lover, an orchestral drone creates nail-biting tension. This is Puccini — with a difference.

What is this production like?

First seen in at Opera North in 2004, this production by David Pountney has been described as a ‘grippingly stark piece of expressionism’ (The Guardian) and is set in and around a large shipping container, evoking the darkness and seediness of the Seine barge scene. A hole in the bottom of the container allows characters to emerge from and disappear into a lightless underground world, and costumes suggest the late 1940s/early 1950s, yet feel very current — this could be happening today.

A little more about the opera

Who was the composer?

Il tabarro was written by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), composer of the similarly dramatic Tosca and hugely popular La bohème, and arguably the most famous opera composer of all time! The libretto was created by Giuseppe Adami, with whom Puccini also collaborated on his opera La rondine.

Il tabarro forms the first panel of a trio of one act operas called Il trittico, which was Puccini’s penultimate operatic work (Turandot was his final opera, premiering after his death in 1926).

Some history

In 1912, Puc­cini visited Paris and saw a one-act play called Le Houp­pelande (The Cloak) by Didier Gold. He was imme­di­ately seized by its oper­atic poten­tial and wanted to set it to music. He had been interested in composing one-act operas for a while — they had been in vogue ever since the sensational success of Mascagni’s Cav­al­le­ria Rus­ti­cana in 1890. Ever the man of the theatre, Puccini also believed that multiple short, contrasting operas performed back-to-back would create a heightened sense of drama for the audience. 

The opera, along with the other two panels of Il trittico, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in December 1918, shortly after the WW1 Armistice. Due to continuing danger from mines in the Atlantic, Puccini wasn’t actually able to attend, but the performance was great success — the three operas received more than forty cur­tain calls altogether.

Today, Il tabarro is occasionally performed as part of Il trittico, but very often just two of the three are performed as a double bill, or one opera is paired with a stand-alone piece by a different composer. This autumn, we perform Puccini’s ‘cloak’ opera alongside his heart-wrenching Suor Angelica. An intense evening awaits!

Did you know?

  • When composing Il tabarro, Puccini was interested most of all in depicting the atmos­phere of life aboard a barge on the River Seine. He went so far as to say to librettist Giuseppe Adami that “Lady Seine should be the true pro­tag­o­nist of the drama.”
  • Puccini was heavily influenced by Debussy and impressionism (particularly Pelleas & Melisande of 1903) when writing ll tabarro, painting a vivid musical backdrop and using both parallel chords and open fourths and fifths. 
  • Il trittico’s success initially rode on the reputation Puccini had gained through La bohème and Tosca. In fact, the general manager of the New York Met raised the price of ‘orches­tra seats’ from $6 to $7 just for the premiere, claiming that in Milan “$20 a ticket would have been charged for the orches­tra seat. So it is cer­tainly not ask­ing too much of the pub­lic to pay $7 for the best seats when the com­poser is none other than the com­poser of La bohème and Tosca.” And perhaps Il trittico still does ride on the popularity of Puccini’s best loved operas — though don’t worry, we haven’t put our prices up! 

Il tabarro is sung in Italian with English titles and lasts approximately 50 minutes. It is performed as part of a double bill with Suor Angelica

For more info or to book tickets, visit the Il tabarro webpage.

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North.

Images (t-b):
Il tabarro at Opera North, 2016. Photo Tristram Kenton
Il tabarro at Opera North, 2004. Photo: Clive Barda 
Giacomo Puccini and Guiseppe Adami
​​Il tabarro at Opera North, 2016. Photo Tristram Kenton

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