I see that my colleague, SF Opera Examiner Cindy Warner, has decided to treat each of the three parts of Giacomo Puccini's Il Trittico separately, beginning last night with "Il Tabarro." This probably makes sense. One could say (as Cindy observed) that the parts are united around the theme of death; but the perspectives are so different that the concept of union, rather than mere cohabitation, is a bit of a stretch. Indeed, the parts are different enough that Puccini approached each with a different musical language; and, given my usually dim view of the scope of Puccini's expressiveness, that is really saying something (at least for me)!
If Puccini excels in Tosca through a loud and vulgar account of his libretto, with a result that might play better on the streets than in an opera house, "Il Tabarro" offers a more subdued look at vulgarity that is all the more intense for its quieter approach. Set on a barge docked on the Seine in Paris between cargo deliveries, it is a potboiler of a failed marriage and repressed sexuality that could easily have been called "The Boatman Always Rings Twice." Cindy saw parallels with Porgy and Bess. However, my philosophical studies have led me to see Porgy as Aristotelian tragedy concerned with the impact of Porgy's nobility on the different people he encounters (not just Bess and Crown). All the characters of "Tabarro" are base; and, whatever dreams they have, they accept and sometimes revel in their base conditions. From Aristotle's point of view, this makes for comedy, even when the climax is murder. Indeed, the tale is a "comedy of distress," not unlike Alexander Pushkin's dramatic account of Tsar Boris Godunov and Modest Mussorgsky's adaptation of that account as an opera. This would be consistent with an observation made by Ethan Mordden on the Metropolitan Opera Web page of teaching materials for Il Trittico to the effect that the source for "Il Tabarro," Didier Gold's La Houppelande, was "a Grand Guignol favorite." One never went to the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol to encounter noble characters in noble circumstances!
There is also a useful clue in the nostalgia for Belleville that occupies the libretto as the characters are first disclosing their key attributes to us. Belleville rates its own Wikipedia entry, where we discover how relevant it is to those characters of "Il Tabarro" who survive (but only barely) from the strength of their backs:
Historically, Belleville was a working class neighborhood. The independent village of Belleville had played a large part in establishing the Second French Republic in 1848. Some 20 years later, residents of the incorporated neighborhood of Belleville comprised some of the strongest supporters of the Paris Commune in 1871. When the Versailles Army came to reconquer Paris in May of that year, it faced the toughest resistance in both Belleville and Ménilmontant. The bloody street fighting persisted in the two eastern districts, and the last barricade is said to have been in the Rue Ramponeau in Belleville.
In "Il Tabarro" we have progressed beyond the age of Victor Hugo and Émile Zola; but the residue of the revolutionary spirit of that age still clings to Belleville (and there were even traces of it in Sylvain Chomet's Les Triplettes de Belleville).
Going back to my claim that each of the three parts of Il Trittico has its own characteristic musical language, I found myself wondering how aware Puccini was of what Maurice Ravel was doing around the time of this project (which was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918). The Parisian setting is complemented by the sorts of atmospheric qualities one finds in Daphnis et Chloé and the orchestral version of Ma Mère l'Oie. This spirit is, of course, diametrically opposed to proletarian Belleville; but Puccini may have invoked it as an ironic twist to this sordid tale of a crime of passion, so out of context with Ravel's usual bill of fare. Indeed, even after the horror of the disclosure of the murder, we are left with little more than the sense that both life and Paris will go on, just as all of Russia goes on as the curtain falls on Pushkin's "comedy of distress."