Suor Angelica is not among Puccini’s most popular operas. On Sunday night, about 400 or so of us were wondering why, because it was fantastic.
The performance was at St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church in Carlsbad. It was a fitting venue since Suor takes place in a convent and the cast is primarily nuns — with two notable exceptions.
This production was musically gorgeous from the get the go. The orchestra was composed of union musicians, some of whom play with the San Diego Symphony. The cast of holy sisters was composed of women from the San Diego Opera Chorus. There are no men in Suor Angelica.
The proceeds of this endeavor went to San Diego Opera. The singers, musicians, and tech people all donated their time and energy.
I cannot express just how moving the evening was. To start with, Puccini’s music is glorious. Then there is the magic of mature, full, refined singers in a space that was, to borrow Dr. Nic Reveles’ term, “human”.
Dr. Nic gave the pre-concert introduction to the piece and afterward used that term “human space” as a description of the venue. He makes a great point.
There was something distinct about experiencing Puccini at such a close distance. The orchestra was arranged to the far right and therefore allowed the audience access to the singers without a pit aka a medieval form of defense.
In a theater, there is a literal chasm separating the audience from the story taking place on the stage. On Sunday night it just wasn’t there.
I could go on and on about individual singers and how they sang, but I feel as though that would be to miss the point. Trust me. The singing was great but the communal feeling that saturated the entire experience was unique. This is what opera can be when given half a chance.
Barbara Frittoli's "Final Scene" in Suor Angelica at the Met in 2007
I must mention the end of the piece. Sister Angela (Suor Angelica) is in the convent because she had an illegitimate son. She receives the news that he died two years ago and, in her grief, poisons herself. Before she dies she has a vision of her little boy standing alongside the Virgin.
We all knew it was coming but when the little boy, played by Michael DeBellis, walked out and extended his hand over the dying Angelica it took our breath away. That is what opera is supposed to do. It takes us to an emotional space within ourselves that we rarely visit.
Opera, done this way, done with love and commitment and in community, will never die.