Vertical Player Repertory Presents Puccini on Red Hook Pier Waterfront

By Nino Pantano
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
published online 09-12-2007

BROOKLYN — Giacomo Puccini composed “Il Tabarro” (The Cloak) in 1918 as part one of his “Il Trittico,” consisting of three short operas. The action takes place on a barge in the River Seine.

The ship's Captain Michele and his wife Giorgetta are having a major marital meltdown, especially after the death of their young son. Giorgetta misses the closeness they once shared and is bored with the humdrum life on the barge and has taken a young stevedore lover Luigi who is in her husbands employ. Michele suspects his wife of being unfaithful. When Michele lights his pipe in the cabin, Luigi mistakes this as the “all-clear” signal to join Giorgetta and comes aboard. Michele confronts and questions Luigi and then strangles him and places his body in his cloak. Giorgetta returns and recalls to Michele that in better days when they were in love, he used to comfort her in the warmth of his cloak. Michele then opens his cloak and throws Giorgetta on her lover's body as the opera ends.

This mini-masterpiece was always the neglected part of this trio of operas: the other two being the tragic “Suor Angelica” and the irresistible comedy “Gianni Schicchi.” However lately there has been a renewed appreciation of this richly textured and dramatically potent work.

This entire project is due to the vision of Judith Barnes, in collaboration with Carolina Salguero, the director of Portside New York and with the cooperation of American Stevedoring Inc. They then transferred the action from the Seine River in Paris to the Red Hook waterfront in Brooklyn at sunset in 1940s to elaborate on this brilliant concept, one I am certain Puccini and his librettist Giuseppe Adami would have approved.

Tanker's Acoustics Are Excellent
The huge tanker named The Mary A. Whalen, built in 1938, was the stage and 400 seats were placed on the pier directly facing the rocking barge. No microphones were used, and the acoustics were excellent. Much of the street action spilled off the ship and took place right in front of the audience; seafaring characters, pimps, cigarette vendors, record sellers, hookers (Red Hookers?) lovers and urchins causing a stir and much delight among the crowd.

In the title role, Judith Barnes was a most sympathetic Giorgetta, her sensual soprano soared with pulsating passion and her sense of longing for a better life was incorporated into her portrayal. Her Giorgetta was unfaithful but Puccini's heartfelt score makes her a complex soul with all the ingredients, of a Puccini heroine. Ms. Barnes radiant singing of “Bisogna aver provato” with her lover where she longs for her hometown of Belleville was magnificent. Ms. Barnes and Sebek were a heavenly blend. Her bone-chilling scream as her lover's body falls out of Michele's cloak haunts me still.

Zurab Ninua was a marvelous Michele, his rich baritone and powerful acting gave the audience a visceral thrill. This role with its escalating vocal challenges and sustained high notes was perfect for Ninua, who negotiated all the complexities with passion and commitment. Ninua's sustained B flat at the finale recalled the splendid Rigoletto I saw him perform recently. A great voice!

Christian Sebek was outstanding as Giorgetta's lover Luigi. His tenor has a lot of steel in it. His singing of “Hai ben raggione meglio non pensare” (Quite right you are — it is vain for us to ponder) had just the right balance of hopelessness and despair that was captured in his interpretive art as well as his ringing vocal projection which elicited bravos from the audience.

Twila Ehmcke was a delightful Frugola who is so radiant of voice and persona that one cannot help but be charmed by her. Her singing about her Angora cat “Cuore di manzo per caporale” enchanted and her warm expressive mezzo soprano was bewitching.

The smaller parts were all part of a brilliant tapestry and were acted and sung with gusto. Peter Ludwig as Talpa, Aram Tchobanian as the tipsy Tinca, Kurt Alakulppi as Venditore, the song peddler who is selling the story of Mimi “that those who love with fevered passions will no longer see their dear ones” followed by Heather Green and Matthew Pena sweetly singing as the young lovers.

Isadore Elias amused the audience as the roving guitarist and squeeze box player. Samuel Fye and Chris Moraitis were stevedores and Emilio Pompetti, Lucia Pompetti and Margaret Yassky as urchins rounded out the colorful waterfront rovers.

Peter Szep was the excellent conductor and he brought out the nuances of this fascinating score both atonal and melodic (with no really hummable arias) yet with a sweep and grandeur that captures the listener. The orchestra performed beautifully despite the movement of the currents and the occasional strong breeze. The chorus was also superb and the costumes by Dixie Rich were vivid and colorful recalling the 1940s and the Red Hook pier.

Director Beth Greenberg from the New York City Opera brilliantly made the whole thing work from the real stevedores walking aboard with cargo to the cabin where Michele and Giorgetta stay to the table on the deck and to the action on the pier down below. Plaudits to Dan Scully for lighting and Scott Crawford for choreography and stage management.

View of Governors Island, Manhattan
It was such a magical evening with the stars above, the spectacular view of Governors Island and the Manhattan skyline with barges, ferries and ships passing by, a blimp softly flew above and an occasional helicopter and the swaying of the barge and the gentle lap of the waters all added to the thrill of this unique event. Suddenly the beams of blue light from the Twin Towers area appeared in the skies above as a reminder of how much we need beauty and music in our lives.

At the reception before the performance, we chatted with young Amy Salo who was the trumpeter in the orchestra as well as with a woman named Claire Lent who was 84 years young and bused in from Virginia just to see this “Il Tabarro” and was returning that night. I could not help but think that the great Luciano Pavarotti who passed away the day before would have been so happy to see so many young people as well as those young at heart enjoying the opera under the heavens where his voice now resonates. At the finale, the capacity crowd of four hundred cheered and bravoed. The Vertical Players and Judith Barnes gave us all a night to remember.

For further information, log on to or call (212) 539-2696. This performance was dedicated to the memory of Sally Yarmolinsky whose dream it was to see the Vertical Player Repertory perform IL Tabarro on the Brooklyn waterfront.

What next for the Vertical Player Repertory? Show Boat? La Gioconda? “Fanny?” The possibilities loom large for the barge!


© Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2007