Opera in one act. Part of Il Trittico (‘The Tryptych’), a sequence of three one-act operas intended to be performed together (the other two are Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi)
Libretto by Giuseppe Adami, based on the play La Houppelande by Didier Gold.
First performed in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on 14 December 1918.
Evening in Paris.
A barge is moored at a quay on the River Seine, geraniums in a pot on the flat roof of the cabin, washing hanging on a line, canaries in a cage. The skipper, Michele, a man of fifty, is sitting by the tiller, holding an unlit pipe and watching the sunset. A gangplank is in place and a group of longshoremen, along with the crew of the barge, are unloading the barge, singing as they work. Michele’s wife, Giorgetta, half his age, emerges from the cabin and asks him if the sunset is really that good, and when Michele says that it is, she comments that it must be, because he has let his pipe go out. She asks whether the unloading is nearly finished, and suggests that the men have worked hard and deserve a glass of wine. He suggests that a bit of wine will give them the will to finish the job quickly, and tells her that she has a good heart – but asks why she didn’t think of him; he tells her that his pipe may have gone out, but his passion is still alight. He leans forward to kiss her, but she turns her head away. Michele, hurt, goes down into the cabin.
Luigi, one of the hands, comments that the work is hot, and Giorgetta tells him that she has just the thing for him – their silent eye-contact reveals a secret longing. Tinca and Talpa, two more of the crew, come onto the deck, complaining about the back-breaking work and the sticky heat. Giorgetta comes up with a jug of wine and some tumblers and starts to pour the wine. Gratefully, they drink: Tinca comments that his only happiness lies at the bottom of a glass. An organ-grinder passes along the wharf and Luigi calls out to him – Giorgetta says that the only music she knows is music that you can dance to. As the organ-grinder churns out his music, Tinca gallantly attempts to dance with Giorgetta, but only succeeds in treading on her toes. Luigi pushes Tinca aside, and begins to dance with her, and she presses herself closely to him.
Michele comes up out of the cabin and Giorgetta quickly disengages herself from Luigi, pats her hair back into place and asks whether they will be casting off again within the week, and which of the men they will be taking with them. A passing song-peddler calls out his wares as Michele explains to Giorgetta that he is prepared to let Luigi go – he is not an easy man to work with and he will have to get along on his own. Giorgetta simply comments that although it is a lovely evening there is a September chill in the air. She sees Frugola, Talpa’s old wife, coming down the wharf. The song-peddler, followed by a gaggle of milliner’s assistants, sets up his stall in a nearby street and starts to sing about young lovers – it is the story of Mimi, he explains.
Michele asks Giorgetta if she is happy – she replies that she is and has nothing to complain of. He says that he never beats her, and she replies that she would prefer to be treated roughly than to be ignored the way he sometimes ignores her. As the song-peddler continues to sing his song of sad young love, Michele walks silently to the other end of the barge. Giorgetta follows him and says that she is happy in Paris – Michele simply grunts. Frugola joins them – she is a bag-lady, and has with her her bag of scavenged rubbish. She greets Michele and Giorgetta as ‘you perennial lovers’ and Michele acknowledges her with a nod before going below. Frugola asks how Talpa is getting on, explaining that he was feeling his age the previous evening and she had to rub his back – so much that it used up all her good rum! She laughs at herself and sorts through the contents of her bag, finding a nice comb which she gives to Giorgetta, telling her that is it the nicest thing she has found all day. She produces various other findings – laces, scarves, all kinds of bits and pieces, and Giorgetta comments that her nickname of Frugola (‘rag-picker’) is well deserved. Giorgetta sees a paper parcel and asks what it is. Frugola tells her that it is a piece of ox-heart for her fine Angora cat, Caporale; with his white fur and blue eyes, she says, Caporale keeps her company when Talpa is away, and has a philosophy that it is better to be master in a hovel than a servant in a fine mansion, and that it is better to eat a stone-hard heart that to have your own heart worn down by fruitless love.
Talpa joins them and asks what they are talking about and Frugola says that she is talking about the cat. Michele emerges from the cabin and calls to Luigi, telling him that they will be loading steel bars in the morning, and asking him if he wants the work. He does. Tinca says that he is off for a drink, and Frugola tells him that if he were her husband, she would stop his endless drinking. Tinca ruefully comments that when he is drinking, he does not think, because when he thinks, he becomes gloomy. Luigi launches into an impassioned diatribe about hard work, the futility of life, the absence of any happiness and the hopelessness of poverty. Tinca tells him that drink will cure all that. Talpa tells Frugola that he is weary and he wants to go home, and Frugola muses on the home she really wants – a tiny cottage surrounded by roses and shaded by trees, with Talpa stretched out in the sun and Caporale at her feet – all of them waiting to die, because death is the cure for everything. Giorgetta says that her dream is different: she wants to give up the vagrant river live and return to a house in the suburbs, just like the one she grew up in. Frugola asks where that was, and Luigi interrupts, ‘Belleville’. He too came from there, and he and Giorgetta, oblivious to the presence of the others, sing passionately of homes that do not move, which have flagstones under your feet, and trips to the Bois de Boulogne, and a world full of love and laughter.
Slightly embarrassed, Frugola takes Talpa away – he had not noticed the change of pace. Tinca leaves too. Luigi approaches Giorgetta but she reminds him that Michele may return at any moment. She tells him that she still has the memory of his kisses the previous night and warns him that it Michele finds out, he will kill them both. Luigi says that it would be better to die for love that to live under such unbearable separation. They briefly share a dream of life together somewhere, but are interrupted by Michele, who returns and asks Luigi why he is still there. Luigi replies that he wanted to thank Michele for keeping him on, but asks to be put ashore at Rouen. Michele is surprised – there will be no work for him in Rouen. Luigi says that he will just have to stay on the barge then.
Michele goes down below to start lighting the lanterns and in a hurried exchange, Luigi and Giorgetta whisper their love and their hopes to one another, before Giorgetta tells him that she will leave the gangplank down again tonight and asks Luigi whether he has soft-soled shoes. He shows her his shoes and asks what signal she will give. Giorgetta tells him that as before she will light a match – a tiny sliver of wood which will light up a whole new star for her; Luigi too is burning with love – he says that he will kill to keep her safe from harm. She pushes him away, and he leaves, as Giorgetta comments that it is hard to find true happiness on earth.
Michele comes up from below with the lighted lanterns. He asks her if she is going to bed and she responds by saying that he was right to keep Luigi on, and that maybe he should have let Tinca go. Michele replies that Tinca drinks to try to forget his unfaithful wife, and to avoid killing her. Giorgetta cut him short, and says that she doesn’t want to hear talk like that. Michele asks her why she does not love him, and she says that she does, he is kind and honest; as they talk, it becomes clear that they had a baby son the previous year, but that he died. Michele recalls that on cold nights, he would wrap his cloak (his ‘tabarro’) around all three of them and feel their two heads upon his shoulder. Not that the baby is dead, his own grey hairs are like an insult to Giorgetta. He tells her that he knows that she will not sleep, that she hardly ever sleeps now, and he reminds her of their past life, when they were in love and would sit in the moonlight, kissing and floating on the tide.
Giorgetta hushes him, but he continues, recalling the burning passion, the kisses, the happiness which are all now gone. Giorgetta says that she has changed, that nothing is the same now. She bids him goodnight and he comments that it will soon be over. He tries to kiss her but she turns away and runs below. ‘Bitch’, he mutters, as two lovers, entwined in one another, stroll along the wharf singing of their love, and of kisses, and of bright moonlight, and of a happy tomorrow.
Michele watches the black mysterious river flow past the barge and muses grimly on the depth of his own misery and on how many human problems those dark waters have solved. The river is calm, he comments, unaffected by the passing years, and has carried endless bodies to their peaceful end, itself responsible for some of these deaths. ‘Flow on, and wash away my grief’, he sings, and asks the river to take him to his own death. He collapses in grief, and then, pulling himself together, takes out his matches and lights his pipe.
On-shore, Luigi sees the flare of the match and leaps lightly onto the gangplank. Michele hides until he can recognise the intruder, then jumps on Luigi and holds him tightly by the throat. He asks Luigi why he has come – is it to meet his mistress? Luigi, terrified, denies this. Michele tightens his grip and tries to force a confession out of Luigi. Luigi tries to reach for his knife, but Michele grabs it and tells Luigi that if he confesses, he will release him. Luigi cries out that he loves Giorgetta; Michele forces him to repeat it, and then strangles him and covers his body with the cloak.
Giorgetta comes onto the deck and tells Michele that she felt afraid. She apologises for being so mean to him and tries to approach him. He reminds her that in the past, when she was afraid, he would take her under his cloak and comfort her. She replies that he used to tell her that every man needs a great cloak under which he can conceal sometimes a great joy and other times a great sorrow. Michele says ‘… and sometimes, a murder’. He lifts the cloak and Luigi’s body falls forward. Horror-stricken, Giorgetta falls back but Michele grabs her and forces her down onto the body of her dead lover.
Related articles can be found on
The background to the writing of Il Tabarro
The life and operas of Giacomo Puccini
The life and librettos of Giuseppe Adami
Didier Gold’s play La Houppelande and the differences between the play and Puccini’s opera
The plots of the other two operas which form Il Trittico (Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi), and of all of Puccini’s operas
Cats in opera
Inns and taverns in opera
Tobacco in opera
… and many, many more aspects of opera
© Roger Witts 2004