Puccini: Suor Angelica
Suor Angelica Cristina Weiheimer
La Zia Principessa Krista Mulbery
Suor Genovieffe Jill Hoogewoonink
The Abbess Stephanie Bent
The Monitor Jessie MacDonald
Mistress of Novices Molly Danko
The Nursing Sister Julia Grigaitis
Suor Dolcina Carrie-Ann Hubbard
Suor Osmina Lydia-Ann Levesque
The Alms Sisters Jennifer O’Donnell, Kayla Willsey, Lydia-Ann Levesque, Ruth Wong-Miller
The Lay Sisters Elizabeth Grigaitis, Sable Chan
The Novice Christina O’Dell
Director Glynis Price
Musical Director Spencer Kryzanowski
Holy Trinity Anglican Church (101 St and 84th Avenue)
Friday, February 15
Suor Angelica, first performed at the Met in 1918, is the most sentimental of all Puccini’s operas, guaranteed to tug at the audience’s heart-strings. Its combination of the naivete and innocence of nuns, the heroine who is doing penance for having a child out of wedlock, the reported death of that child, and the suicide of the mother, is potent stuff.
It’s worth remembering, though, that it is part of a triptych of short operas, each showing a different aspect of the human condition. The work is not quite so cloying when seen against the other two operas – indeed, Puccini himself got pretty angry about them being split up. Arguably, it is not as good either dramatically or as musically as its companions, the verismo masterpiece Il tabarro and one of the best comic operas ever written¸ Gianni Schicchi. However, that very sentimentality, that combination of quasi-spirituality and tragic penance, means that is has remained the most popular of the three among the general public.
Yet it is something of an ambivalent opera. First, it reflects Puccini’s life-long and sometimes uncomfortable obsession with women in unfortunate situations. Second, the very idea – in Italian Catholic terms of the time – of a nun (who is doing penance for having a child out-of-wedlock) being forgiven in a miracle by the Virgin Mary for the mortal sin of committing suicide has its theological problems.
But then underneath all that sentimentality and slightly self-indulgent passion is, surely partly intentionally, the suggestion of social commentary. There is an anti-clerical element – the nuns, after all, are a pretty silly lot, and there is that contradiction in the suicidal ending. The idea woven into the story and exemplified by the domineering figure of the Princess, Angelica’s Aunt, of a family ruined by the scandal of a bastard child, with the outcasting of the mother, does comment on Italian social mores, however much they were to change in the aftermath of the First World War. One can, indeed, imagine the nodding heads of the more severe American matrons in the audience at its premiere, pleased at the apparent message and missing the irony.
The reviews of the premiere were generally impressed by the music, but not always about the overall effect. Here’s W. J. Henderson in the Evening Sun on Suor Angelica: “But it is almost always metronomic, dull, drilling upon its theme with the persistence of a dentist at a tooth. There is no blood or bone to it, no strength to uphold the nun’s veiling the concept.”
A little harsh, perhaps, but Forzano’s libretto does seem a little saccharine. Nonetheless, Suor Angelica has rightly proved to be popular with both younger singers, such as undergraduate groups, and semi-amateur companies (as I can attest, having directed productions with both). The collection of nuns provides the opportunity for a number of smaller solo roles, and, while the two main roles of Angelica and the Princess have their challenges, they are not too taxing. The relatively short length (around an hour) helps with rehearsals, and the opera works equally well in simple or complex staging. And, of course, it provides lots of opportunities for women singers.
One such semi-amateur group is Edmonton’s enterprising Pop Goes the Opera, who presented the work in Holy Trinity Anglican Church on Friday, February 15th, and are repeating it at 2 pm on Sunday, February 17th. The company – from its sponsors to its singers – is very much a local one, with some faces familiar from the chorus of the Edmonton Opera. It has already established its credentials with Cavalleria Rusticana at the 2016 Fringe, and then an excellent Pagliacci at the 2017 Fringe. If their enterprising 2018 Fringe oratorio, McCune’s Y2K Black Death Oratorio, was less successful, that was down to the material rather than the enthusiasm of the company.
Glynis Price, who directed the Pagliacci, directs this Suor Angelica, and that production’s Nedda, Cristina Weiheimer, takes the lead role. Thankfully, production is sung in Italian, for although this inevitably produced some mixed standards of pronunciation, it sounds so much better in the original language, and the English surtitles are clear and comprehensive. What was missing were the orchestral colours, for the cast is accompanied by a single piano, played by Spencer Kryzanowski, who also conducted from the keyboard.
Price sensibly decided to keep the staging simple, and to make the most of the opportunities that the church offers, using almost everywhere from the back of the aisles to the altar. Setting Suor Angelica in a church is, of course, entirely appropriate, but it has its unexpected effects, particularly near the end. That ambivalence in the work comes across all the stronger, especially when Angelica sings about the mortal sin of suicide, and there is a slight sense of sacrilege, or at least dissonance, between her actions and the ecclesiastical surroundings.
The piano reduction was a very sparse one indeed. The original scoring, until the larger orchestral climaxes at the end, is admittedly very chamber-like, but it never sounds thin – Puccini goes for colour and timbre. Without much variety in those two musical elements, this piano version really needed a little more idiomatic life in the playing (and, whether it was an aural illusion or not, it seemed to be missing some obvious touches from the full score). This wasn’t entirely to the work’s disadvantage – it sounded rather 20th-century rather than late-Romantic, and it did allow any listener interested to experience the nuts and bolts of the score.
Suor Angelica is very much an ensemble opera, and the Pop Goes the Opera cast make the most of the opportunity. There are some neat little touches in the character acting among the nuns, and the singing overall is uniformly enjoyable. It is perhaps a bit invidious to single out any one particular nun from the group, but nonetheless Jill Hoogewoonink’s strong sense of character as Suor Genovieffe (she reminded me of Sister Julienne in Call the Midwife) was noteworthy.
The Principessa is played most imperiously by Krista Mulbery, looking for all the world like a stern Victorian matron – one can well believe the strength of her unsympathetic convictions – and she has a mezzo-soprano to match. Soprano Christina Weiheimer as Angelica could, I felt, have used a stronger directorial hand: her reaction to hearing of her son’s death, for example, was very tame, and one doesn’t get the full sense of her anguish at the end. She also seems to pull back a little vocally on the higher notes and at climatic moments. Nonetheless, she does fit well into the overall ensemble – in some productions she can feel like a prima among pares, while here she is definitely one of the community. She has quite clearly served her penance, and is completely undeserving of her fate.
Pop Goes the Opera make the most of the limitations of scale, venue, and of a community organization such as theirs. The result was a most enjoyable evening, that may have lacked the full colours of Puccini’s score, but nonetheless captured the essence of the work, and at the same time – due to those very limitations – threw up some interesting viewpoints on the work. It’s well worth dropping down to Holy Trinity Anglican Church for the Sunday afternoon performance.
The company has also announced that it will be doing Gianni Schicchi – a work that should suite them admirably – at the 2019 Fringe, which is excellent news. I look forward to it!