Monday, October 02, 2006


Giacomo Pucini 1858-1924
I've been offered a wonderful opportunity this fall to direct most of Puccini's one act opera 'Suor Angelica'. I say "most of" because we're doing the second half. At one hour the whole is too long for a scenes recital. Performance date is November 21. Now, a nice Irish boy like me from Boston with a sentimental streak a mile wide may or may not be the best choice to handle this delicate work.

It's the story of a Florentine princess who is put away in a convent by her outraged family after bearing a child out of wedlock. One day, after seven years of silence the princess-now "Sister Angelica" is visited by her forbidding, elderly aunt. The old lady has no compassion for her niece. She has come only to obtain a signature from Angelica who is told to renounce all claims to her family's estate in favor of her younger sister, who is about to be married

ANGELICA: After seven years I stand before you
Let this holy place inspire you
It is a place of pity, a place of forgiveness

AUNT: A place of penance!

Your sister Anna Viola is to be married

ANGELICA: Married? Little Anna Viola, married?
My little sister-Oh, seven years have passed
Who is she to marry?

AUNT: To one whose love has allowed him to overlook
the disgrace you have brought to our noble family

ANGELIA: Sister of my mother-you are unforgiving!

Angelica signs. She asks timidly the fate of her young son.

AUNT: Two years ago he was taken ill.
Everything was done to try and save him

The child is dead. The old lady leaves without a word of kindness.
Angelica brews herself a tea of poisoned herbs.
In drinking this she realizes she has committed the mortal sin of suicide.
She manages to pray to the Virgin for forgiveness.
She dies with a vision of the virgin leading her young son toward her.

ANGEICA MAdonna, madonna salvami
Per l'amor di mio figlio
ho smarie la ragioe!

Save me, Madonna
For the love of my son
I have lost my reason

Well, now. That can be pretty hokey even for me!
I remember every Easter as a kid sitting through "The Song of Bernadette" on TV and by 11 pm Jennifer Jones would be on her deathbed crying "I really did see her! I really did see her!" and dying as MGM's chorus of off camera angels switch from a minor to a major key for the end credits.

(You should always die in a major key)
Giacomo Puccini, world famous for La boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, had a notable success at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with his La fanciulla del West The Girl of the Golden West in 1910. The saloon keeper Minnie, the 'girl' of the title was sung by Emma Destinn. Enrico Caruso played the cowboy bandit Dick Johnson.   La fanciulla del West  was recognized as Puccini's most sophisticated score-if not most loved-only after his death in 1924.

Still, with Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini was the world's greatest opera composer. By 1918 it was time to return to the Met, and try again.

We come to the world premiere of  Il trittico at the Met, December 14, 1918.

Suor Angelica was not a success at its premiere. It is the second of three operas written by  Puccini intended to be performed on the same evening as Il trittico-The Triptych. The first, Il tabarro-The Cloak is a steamy sex and blood and guts shocker...and the third is Puccini's only comedy, the wonderful "Gianni Schicchi".

But Sister was left alone and unloved on and off the stage.

Here's a review of the first night by the critic W.J. Henderson:

There is dignity unalloyed, majesty untempered, reverence unlimited in "Suor Angelica." There are
Geraldine Farrar
conscious efforts to lighten the score by the introduction of trivial incidents-the arrival of a stock of good food into the nunnery courtyard or the scramble to pluck at raspberries-and here the music is highly ingenious.
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 of the concept.

Miss Geraldine Farrar deserves all credit for what good impression the short tragedy made. Her acting of the nun who has endured seven years of vindictive loneliness, who learns of her child's death, who brews and drinks a fatal cup, and prays for a miracle to prove the Madonna's forgiveness-her acting of all this lugubrious fustian was magnificently noble.
 Her voice was by no means at its best, but she carried the role and the audience equally far. The miracle proved a tame affair. To a Metropolitan clientele on familiar terms with miracles...this one had the taint of much modesty.-


I think writing such an opera for an important premiere in New York may have been a mistake. The Metropolitan Opera must have glittered on December 14,1918. Puccini was the world's most celebrated opera composer. He had visited New York ten years earlier to supervise the local premiere of Madama Butterlfy." His delicate geisha-needing lungs of steel to sing over his large orchestra-was the American glamor girl Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967). Puccini reportedly did not like her but that hardly mattered. Lovely of voice and figure, Farrar -the daughter of a baseball player from Melrose, Massachusetts, was the darling of the public, second only to Caruso in box office popularity. She had the further advantage of being Arturo Toscanini's mistress. Conductor and diva began as sworn enemies at early rehearsals

FARRAR: Do not correct me, Maestro.
Remember, I am a star

TOSCANINI: Signora the only stars are in the heavens.
On the earth there are only good artists or bad artists
You are a bad artist

By 1918 Farrar had gone Hollywood, becoming a bona fide movie star-playing everything from Carmen to Joan or Arc-and Toscanni had left the Metropolitan.

No doubt she was chosen for Suor Angelica for her box office clout. Farrar herself seemed unimpressed by the opera. She wrote later "Suor Angelica made no demands on me". HMMMM

I doubt the New York public found the glamorous Geraldine, who counted the Crown Prince of Prussia among her lovers, a convincing nun. She recorded no music from this opera. She sang a dozen performances of Angelica from 1918 to 1921.

The opera was not given again at the Met until 1975. Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi managed to hang on.

In Vienna, Schwester Angelica became the property of the great Lotte Lehmann, who was not the looker Farrar was, but Puccini called Lehmann's performance 'soavissima'.

Is Suor Angelica a bad opera? No.

I'm willing to bet that the first audience nearly 90 years ago was cynical enough to laugh at visions of the Virgin Mary walking around on stage. The all female cast may have been aurally monotonous.
Opera demands that audiences and performers ignite their imaginations and leave cynicism at the door. Doing that is made easier when the stories are dramatic, when audiences are lulled or manipulated into some kind of strong emotional response. Wagner does this through his music. Verdi through his music and situations. Puccini comes across as unashamedly sentimental. Everyone cries when Mimi dies at the end of La boheme. Cops, prize fighters and even Republicans leave the theater weeping.

OK, the Virgin Mary might be a bit much-but what helps Puccini along is the utter sincerity with which he depicts his characters. He's been the step child of the critics for one hundred years. But we believe in his operas and his creations because he does. If there's any cynicism in the theater, its off stage and off the printed page. Puccini meant to tell the tragedy of a woman who has lost her baby and who seeks redemption and he did so.

But there's a complication. For all her gentleness, Angelica's music demands a dramatic soprano voice, with the beauty of a waterfall and the strength of a cement mixer.

You may wish to play this opera as a blushing flower but the music doesn't support you. Convents were houses of prayer yes, but they were also as with Angelica prisons for fallen women or women whose families could not marry them of advantageously. They were places of anger, petty jealousies, sexual confusion and divine grace. Angelica has tried to live a serene life for seven years, keeping her pain and loss wrapped tightly inside of her. What toll does that take on any of us? How many of the older nuns, who have presumably been there for years-are actually serene and at peace.

Would pretty music serve them? The other sisters, must be made individual characters. Their music is not especially flavorful but the sternness of the Sister Monitor means that Sister Dolcina's funny gluttony and Sister Osmina's defiance must be brought out to balance Sister Genevieve's youth and naivete and Angelica's pain. These are supporting roles but the opera will not function at all if they are not played well. Likewise the Aunt, la zia principessa is less interesting played as a harridan rather than a woman who wants to be past the pain of life, and for whom her niece Angelica, whom she cannot forgive, is a symbol of that pain.

I don't think the music is monotonous. I think it reflects the tedium and pain many of the sisters found in their daily lives. Farrar didn't get it. I doubt she wanted to. Her recordings of music from Tosca and La boheme are marvelous. She "owned" Madama Butterfly whether Puccini-or Toscanini- liked her or not. She may have played Angelica's supposed timidity too well, or over played it. And I doubt she had the voce di petto-the growling dramatic chest voice Angelica needs when she rebukes her aunt, her one act of defiance in this fifty minute opera

Sorella di mia madre, voi siete inesorabile
Sister of my mother, you are unforgiving


Perche tacete?
Un altro istante di questo sileznio
e i dannate per l'eternita!
Le vergine vi acolta e Lei vi giudica

Why are you silent?
Another moment of this silence
and you will be damned forever
The virgin hears you, and judges you

Renata Tebaldi, recording only. Troppo emozione!
Even Renata Tebaldi, surely the most glorious Italian soprano voice of the past fifty years,  never sang Angelica on the stage. "Troppo emozione" she said. Her 1962 recording of the opera finds Tebaldi in poor voice, ducking the one high C-never a good note for her anyway.

Renata Scotto gave memorable performances in the 1980s.

We laughed then at her fractured voice and dramatic excess and we miss her now.
She probably made us uncomfortable with her honesty. Callas never attempted Suor Angelica. Its a vocal and emotional wallop balanced by a delicacy that's hard to pull off. Angelica has to seem to want to explode emotionally while almost never doing so. She is a destroyed woman playing a contented woman.

And she needs a big, luscious, gleaming voice.