Tom Sutcliffe on a new production of Puccini’s Trio of Operas and a new play by Alexi Kaye Campbell

The three hour-long operas that make up Puccini’s Trittico are all about different kinds of belief and morality, and The Faith Machine by Alexi Kaye Campbell at the Royal Court Theatre traverses almost exactly the same territory. Crises are a fundamental ingredient of good drama, of course. If only life were as amenable. Puccini focuses attention on various kinds of bad behaviour in a way that I think is primarily designed to challenge the conventional Catholic understanding of sin.

Tragic nun

Puccini is right behind the tragic nun in Suor Angelica, who has been forced into a convent because she has had an illegitimate son. The cruel epic confrontation with Angelica’s Princess aunt through which Angelica learns of the death of the boy I suspect will confirm all liberal Protestants in their low estimate of the Church. The nuns, apart from the tragic Angelica who poisons herself at the end, are silly and rule-bound. Puccini gives the dying Angelica a vision of the Virgin Mary promising her reunion with her son in heaven. Does Puccini mean that the Almighty through the Queen of Heaven might actually forgive Angelica? Or is Angelica just kidding herself with a personal vision of wish-fulfilment perhaps caused by the poison she’s imbibed?

That crucial vision was entirely omitted in Richard Jones’s efficient but uninspiring production for the Royal Opera. Instead we get a hint that one of the boy patients – in the nursing ward at the convent where Angelica is in charge of mixing the medicines (this is a very Prot take on the piece: Jones suggests the nuns are at least doing something more useful than mere contemplation) – may remind her of the son she’s had to abandon. Not much charge there, methinks, compared with a vision of the Virgin. Jones’s staging feels like puppetry, and it’s always a mistake to make a potent revelation feel predictable. This staging looks realistic, but the opera’s text makes nonsense in a hospice ward. Whether visions really happen is a matter of opinion or faith. But Angelica’s apotheosis is not just indulgent sentimentality. It’s her desperate hope, facing damnation. Puccini’s music and text empathize uncompromisingly with Angelica’s despair, though Ermonela Jaho lacked the colour and charisma for the part.

Surprisingly bloodless

The opening opera Il tabarro (The Overcoat) equally empathizes with both the unfaithful wife, and her husband who just has to kill her lover. But here again Jones fails to paint a really engaging picture of the claustrophobic barge-based circumstances. Instead he overdoes the gritty dullness of heavy labour. Evidently no good can come from this crime passionel – but that’s the point. Romance is a bit of sunshine. Just as in Puccini’s immaculately crafted comic satire Gianni Schicchi he shows us perverse justice done of almost divine quality, when the greedy tribe of relatives at Donati’s deathbed are outwitted in their desperate scheme to fake the will on which their hopes rest.

Instead of monks getting all the loot, Schicchi – dictating to the lawyer Donati’s supposed last testamentary wishes – leaves the lot to himself. Pappano’s lovingly delicate treatment of these flawless Puccini scores could have used a lot more robustness. Jones is the best British opera director around today. But he never warmed to the task here. His Trittico was
surprisingly bloodless and respectable.

Exploring idealism

By contrast I really enjoyed Campbell’s exuberantly argumentative and very long new play at the Royal Court. It brilliantly explored how idealism seldom fits easily into people’s lives – however charismatic the fascination it commands. Campbell’s characters are all people who would like to make the world a better place, including two bishops, one Ugandan and fundamentalist, the other a liberal offshoot from probably Mirfield in its more dubious flower-power days. But what really excited me about his play – apart from the fact that it gave all the actors tremendous chances to work their magic and was excellently directed by Jamie Lloyd – is that it preserves a strong healthy doubt about what the audience should make of the issues on which it touches. Campbell is the partner of the Royal Court’s boss Dominic Cooke, but the African bishop Patrick condemning homosexuality gets a good run for his money. Campbell’s background is Greek yet his play is overwhelmingly Anglican in its ethos, its appealing heroine Sophie (Hayley Atwell) the daughter of a Richard Holloway-type bishop who appears as a ghost in the first scene in a New York flat prompting his daughter as she tries to force her beloved Tom (Kyle Soller) to give up his tainted work in the advertising industry.

The point is that people don’t decide what they believe and then act according to their beliefs – at least not when they have their usual everyday encounters with ‘ought’ and ‘must’. They mostly do what they do because they cannot help themselves. The last scene is after Sophie’s death, and really distressing and deflating. It felt as if she was hanging in the air, a presence. One goes to live performances for what one carries away. ND