As with most operas, themes of love, romance, murder, madness, and the darker trope of suicide are evident. Suor Angelica takes its place amongst the list of tragedies in Puccini’s operatic catalogue, which is most noted for the works of La boheme and Madama Butterfly. The 85-minute one act opera is a series of three works known as The Triptych, (Il trittico, receiving its world premiere at The Met in 1918.) Suor Angelica is a spiritual journey that as it soars, takes an unexpected turn. As if a foreshadowing of Puccini’s own untimely death, it expertly denotes the rise of tension and demise. During this time of Lent, Suor Angelica is a divine reflection of a mother’s love albeit great pain. There is infinite beauty in the way the music lifts you up, preparing for the cataclysmic downfall of a woman longing to be reunited with her son. An Italian libretto unveils a shimmering score with ethereal orchestral movement.
While the storyline spirals into melancholy, vocally the opera transports you to a celestial realm of both realism and mysticism. The saving grace of such à tragic story is that of beautiful, lush melodies lauded in harmonious verismo. Poignantly evocative, Suor Angelica is a symphonically moving masterpiece. For first time opera-goers this is the dipping -your-toe-into-the-water type of opera you’ll want to experience. While I also recommend opera buffa in contrast, a tragedy such as Suor Angelica touches the soul in the most existential type of way.
Conductor Judith Yan (San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, Vancouver Opera,) makes her debut with the Omaha Symphony and is accompanied by Director Keturah Stickann, Artistic Advisor at Knoxville Opera.
Set in an Italian convent, the scenery conveys that of an atavistic 17th century Tuscan abbey, with scenic design by S.A. Panfili. As we see in this work profound foreshadowing is apparent throughout, starting with a nuance to a departed sister. When a ray of light touches the water in the garden every three years to create a golden hue, nuns sprinkle holy water on her tomb. The sisters, hidden away in the cloister long for a taste of materialistic pleasures they’ve shielded themselves away from. Hedonism is not lost on them. A juxtaposition between their repression of desire is reflected in the constricting habits they wear.
A visitor pays a call to Sister Angelica and we learn that her aunt, the Princess, has only come to retrieve her signature so her betrothed sister can inherit her family’s estate. Sister Angelica bore a child out of wedlock and as penance for her actions has been sentenced to a life of piety for her atonement. Upon the princess’s arrival we learn that her son has passed. She is in agony, descending into the deepest of sorrow. A penchant for blooming concoctions and a blessing from heaven are her only refuge, despite the walls of the convent that keep her protected from a post war world.
World class soprano Elaine Alvarez leads as principal Sister Angelica. Garnering critical acclaim (Aida, La Tosca, La Rondine,) Cuban American Alvarez makes her Opera Omaha debut. Combining humanism with a rich velvety timbre and crystalline high notes, she epitomizes the life of a nun shunned by her noble family who bear a coat of arms.
The caliber of talent on the principal roster expands that of the finest opera houses around the world. Deborah Nansteel (The Abbess,) Ronnita Miller, (La Principessa,) Kelly Guerra, (The Monitor,) Hilary Ginther, (The Mistress of Novices,) and Jennifer Cherest (Suor Genovieffa,) illuminate as stars in their own right. Alvarez, Guerra, Gither, Miller, and Cherest in particular are respectively accomplished soloists who have performed with the most prestigious orchestras, symphonies, and opera houses around the world.
Ginther, who specializes in baroque to contemporary operatic works, portrays the Mistress of Novices, in charge of chastising late and shamefaced lay sisters upon the opening. Ginther sternly reprimands culpable postulants during the Sole Act with a robustly warm and expressive mezzo voice that commands the stage.
Jennifer Cherest also makes her company debut as virtuous sister and former shepherdess Suor Genovieffa, Cherest’s silvery vocals are angelic and empyrean, gilded with a pristine beauty that transcends the heavens.
The opera chorus play the overly pious nuns. Not only is it comprised of local veteran Opera Omaha soloists and vocalists such as Karina Brazas, (Nursing Sister,) and Mary Carrick, (Alms Collector,) but also vocal students from the Omaha Conservatory of Music and supernumeraries.
Original and additional costume designs are by Betty Fredickson and Amanda Jones. One notably beautiful design is that of the Principessa, paying homage to the suits that late Queen Elizabeth donned. Sets and costumes were also provided by Tri-Cities Opera, Inc.
Suor Angelica shows us that a redeeming mother’s love can surpass that of even death, deeply moving the soul.
Suor Angelica’s final performance is February 26th at 2:00 PM at the Orpheum Theatre.