Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giovaccino Forzano
Musical Director: Gianandrea Noseda
Stage Director: Walter Le Moli
Set Designer: Tiziano Santi
Costume Designer: Giovanna Avanzi
Lighting Designer: Claudio Coloretti
Musical Preparation: Natalia Mordashova
Children’s Chorus Master: Irina Yatsemirskaya
The idea of performing three one-act operas in one evening, sharply contrasting in theme and mood, came to Giacomo Puccini as far back as 1900, after Tosca. At the time, his thoughts were consumed by one of the greatest books in the history of world culture – Dante’s The Divine Comedy. From people close to Puccini we know that when on trains he was never without his pocket-sized edition, and when talking he would often quote “eternal words”. “Hell”, “Purgatory” and “Heaven” seemed to him ideal material for a triptych. There were diverse reasons why he had to abandon the plan – as a result, essentially it is only Gianni Schicchi that is connected with Dante’s text (Hell, the thirtieth song). The remaining parts of the triptych – Il tabarro and Suor Angelica are based on literary works by other writers.
Formally speaking, Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi have nothing in common with one another, they are not united either by a common story or any other obvious ties. Perhaps that is why the composer never ceased to have doubts as to the justification for I trittico. At the same time, if we immerse ourselves in the unique atmosphere of each of the parts, then a certain very broad meaning, unseen at a fleeting glance, nevertheless comes into view. Its roots bring it to the very forefront, while The Divine Comedy formed the basis of Puccini’s thoughts.
It may be supposed that somewhere on a subconscious level in this work by composer the idea that runs through Dante’s book is reflected. The idea of moving from darkness through purification to light. Then Il tabarro with its predominant cruelty and hopelessness may be likened to Hell. Suor Angelica, like a tale of mortal sin and of salvation through Divine forgiveness, brings us to the idea of purification, and Gianni Schicchi is a hymn to a joyful disposition, unusual for Puccini, giving rise to a dream of Heaven on Earth.
A spring evening in the garden of a convent.
Sister Angelica, the daughter of a noble Florentine family, has taken the veil in order to atone for her sin: an illicit passion when young which resulted in the birth of an illegitimate child. Seven years have passed, though she is unable to forget her son.
The strains of an Ave Maria can be heard from the convent chapel. A group of nuns emerges from the chapel after the service. The Monitress admonishes those who are late for vespers. For missing the service they will be punished and the latecomers enter the convent in order to fulfil the wishes of the Monitress.
Sister Genovieffa observes that the fountain is on the verge of turning gold from the rays of the setting sun as it always does for three evenings during May, a sign of divine grace from the Blessed Virgin Mary. A melancholy moment follows as the nuns recall a sister who died a year ago. Sister Genovieffa suggests that “Perhaps her soul might desire a libation from the fountain?” Answering her question, Sister Angelica declares that desires only come to fruition for the living – the dead have already fulfilled their earthly purpose and their destinies cannot be changed. Displeased with the theme of the conversation, the Monitress reminds them that, as nuns, all desires are forbidden to them. Sister Genovieffa begs to differ: she, for example, yearns to hold a pet lamb. And yet another sister has a wish. The nuns laughingly reply that it must be for something tasty to eat. Drawn into the conversation, to the amazement of all Sister Angelica denies wishing for anything. Their surprise is easily explained – all know that she has been craving news from her family – that same family which forced her to take the veil.
The Nursing Sister rushes in, much distressed: a nun has been stung by a wasp and is in great pain. Angelica swiftly prepares a herbal remedy. The Nursing Sister leaves, praising Angelica’s skill. Two Alms Sisters appear. They mention that a magnificent carriage with a coat-of-arms has arrived at the convent. The Abbess enters and summons Sister Angelica into the hall. Some important visitor has arrived. Before her, Sister Angelica sees her aunt the Princess. The latter exudes coolness and severity. She has come to demand that her niece sign away her share of the family heritage in favour of a younger sister. Her fiancé is willing to overlook the dishonour Angelica brought upon the noble household’s reputation. She must pay, in part at least, for her actions. Unmoved by Angelica’s protests and desperate enquiries about her son, the Princess brutally informs her that her son died two years previously.
The document is signed and the Princess departs. Grieving in the utmost despair, Angelica begs for divine mercy. The nuns proceed to their cells. Angelica follows but then returns to prepare a lethal draught distilled from herbs and flowers. Bidding a tender farewell to the sisters, Angelica swallows the poison but is suddenly overcome by guilt at having committed the mortal sin of taking her own life. Again she prays to the Virgin Mary for salvation. Her prayer is answered. Angelica’s young son approaches his mother and kisses her.
The plot of the one-act opera Suor Angelica unfolds in a convent; it comes as no surprise that in this opus there is not one solo male voice. Apropos, nothing prevented Giacomo Puccini and his librettist Giovacchino Forzano from including, for example, the figure of some priest or jilted lover in the plot. Puccini, however, was consciously writing a deeply feminine opera, moreover not merely with regard to the tessitura: Suor Angelica is a musical drama about a woman’s psyche, about the mystery of the “eternal feminine”, about the power of a woman’s emotions, not passionate but maternal.
The sisterhood isolated beyond the walls of the convent is initially presented as a group portrait. A May day, a garden with a fountain, birds and bells ringing: at first glance, the convent seems like heaven on earth. Gradually, the focus narrows and different types and personalities emerge. Finally, at the centre of attention there is Sister Angelica – the daughter of noble parents who at some point in the past scandalised her family through an illicit liaison. The delicate, pastoral and at times utterly impressionistic sound palette is replaced by a tense psychological duel, followed by a stunningly expressive monologue of a mother who for the second time – now irretrievably – has lost her child and, with that, any meaning of life.
Throughout the opera there flows the theme of guilt and forgiveness: from charming pranks (like giggling while working or a rose tucked inside a sleeve), the cost of which is a prayer “out of turn”, to the gravest sin of suicide, atoned for by the torments of the heroine and her love for her son. The woman with no compassion – the Princess – is transformed into a weapon of Hell; she is opposed by the heavenly image of the Mother of God, perfect in her all-forgiving love. The emotional depth of the opera is colossal, it is in vain to resist the force of its influence, and tears in the auditorium are inevitable – as Puccini had wished.
When working on the score, the composer used all the richness of the sound scale of the early 20th century, including a luxurious late-Romantic orchestra with celesta, harp, bells and organ. The transparent chamber episodes are interwoven with elements of breathtaking tutti; the necessary Catholic entourage is created by echoes of a Gregorian chorale. The jewel in the crown of the opera is Sister Angelica’s aria Senza mamma, one of the most beautiful soprano arias in the international repertoire.
It remains but to guess why the public did not immediately see the merits of Suor Angelica: at the premiere, which took place at the Metropolitan Opera on 14 December 1918, it was overshadowed by the other parts of Puccini’s Il trittico – Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi. The composer considered it to be the finest of the three.
In the Soviet Union Suor Angelica remained banned due to the religious motifs in the plot; only the first and third parts of Il trittico were performed. In 2003 at the Mariinsky Theatre – for the first time in Russia – Puccini’s triptych was staged in its entirety. The team behind the production – compatriots of the opera’s creators – avoided absolutely all melodrama and sentimentality. It is a monochrome, minimalistic production, where the convent is rather more reminiscent of a prison: there are neither roses nor a fountain, only bare grey walls. From the very start the sisters are disunited: even when talking they remain distant from one another, each in her own loneliness. The cold set designs contrast with the vivid emotional quality of Puccini’s music. The production team (stage director Walter Le Moli, designer Tiziano Santi and music director Gianandrea Noseda) remind the audience that this opera about a convent in the 17th century was written during the years of the First World War, at the time of a historic cataclysm, when the loss of that which is most precious – one’s family and the meaning of life – was a bitter reality of the age. Khristina Batyushina
Musical materials provided by G. RlCORDl & CO., Bühnen- und Musikverlag GmbH, Berlin (Germany)
World premiere: 14 December 1918, Metropolitan Opera, New York
Premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre and premiere of this production: 17 April 2003
Running time: 55 minutes
The highlighting of performances by age represents recommendations.
This highlighting is being used in accordance with Federal Law N436-FZ dated 29 December 2010 (edition dated 1 May 2019) "On the protection of children from information that may be harmful to their health"