Review / Canberra Opera gives new life to Puccini personal favourite

Opera “Suor Angelica” – Canberra Opera, At Wesley Uniting Church, Forrest, Friday July 15, Reviewed by Clinton White

The Anguish of Sister Angelica - Karyn Tisdell

The Anguish of Sister Angelica – Karyn Tisdell

THERE was an incongruity, what with Catholic nuns crossing themselves and praying to the Virgin Mary in the sanctuary of a protestant church, but it kind of worked OK.

The great Italian opera composer, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), wouldn’t have minded, for Canberra Opera gave his single act, one-hour opera “Suor Angelica” a creditable performance.

And it’s a good opera for beginner audiences – not too long and not too grand but with a typically long, drawn-out, sticky, self-afflicted (but forgiven) end, in this case for Sister Angelica.

The story starts in the church garden with the nuns singing inside.  A couple, including Sister Angelica, are admonished for being late.  Then they talk about the sins of desire.  Sister Angelica agrees but is lying and everyone knows it.  She had been banished to the convent seven years previously (no-one quite knew why).  Her family is rich and her secret desire is to learn of her family’s doings.

Being something of a natural herb chemist she makes up a medicine for a fellow Sister, who had been stung by a wasp.  But then news comes – there’s a coach outside.  Angelica hopes it’s a visitor for her and it turns out it is her aunt, the Principessa.  She’s there to tell Angelica her sister was to marry and that Angelica had to make good her wrong-doing in bringing disrepute to her family by relinquishing her inheritance (after all nuns are supposed to live in poverty).

She also reveals the horrible truth when she tells Angelica that her illegitimate son had died two years previously.  Angelica takes the news badly, ultimately getting to work with her herbs, making a poison for herself.  She takes it (here begins the death scene) but then realises she is committing a mortal sin and will forever be separated from her dead son.  She cries out for mercy and, miraculously, the Virgin Mary appears with angel children, including her son.  Mary gently pushes him towards Angelica but she dies before she can touch him.  So it all ends a bit sadly, but the good news is that Angelica has been forgiven of her mortal sin.

The performance was a bit stiff at the start, but after Angelica’s aunt (Janene Broere) appeared things picked up considerably.  Broere was suitably aloof and assertive but with a hint of sympathy for Angelica in both acting and voice and Karyn Tisdell, in the title role, brought much drama and emotion to the piece, especially when Angelica hears of the death of her son and then during her own demise.  (Why is it that opera singers can have an interminable death, writhing on the floor, but still be able to sing with power and conviction?)

All singers performed well with true tunings in their vocal lines, good expression and convincing emotions.  The small chamber orchestra, conducted by Liz Collier, provided good accompaniment, including in the judicious use of the church’s organ.  The piano dominated a little too much, leaving other instruments lost in the sound.

Staging was simple.  A square table and two chairs on one side of the sanctuary area was perhaps a little too large and might better have been smaller and round to create more space and better flow (one of the actors had to remove a chair towards the end to make space for the entire company).  On the other side was a double arch.

With the opera sung in Italian, the English libretto was projected to the top of the arches.  This worked moderately well, although became a distraction when the characters were on the other side of the platform.  There was not sufficient contrast in the lettering against the background which, at times, made it hard to read, especially when different sized fonts were used.

Tisdell and Broere performed their acting roles well, but many of the other characters did not have distinctive roles, did a lot of wandering around without much purpose and, because they all were dressed in habits, seemed almost to blend into one.  It might have been good, too, to flood the platform in a bright light at the end to underscore Angelica’s forgiven spirit ascending to heaven to be with her son and the Virgin Mary.

“Suor Angelica” is not well-known, even though it was one of Puccini’s personal favourites.  Canberra Opera have given it new life and it is worth going along to see a very good local production of a rarely-presented work.  There are more performances at 3pm on July 17 and 24, and at 8pm on July 22.

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