Cher Public

Habit, forming

I’ve always had a fondness for Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica and apparently so did he, since he often referred to it as “among the finest of my children.”  Not only does it boast an excellent libretto by Giovacchino Forzano but the superior craftsmanship of the composer in his later years leads to an abundance of melody and some very individual orchestral writing.  

The story is of a young 17th century noblewoman forced to take the veil in shame after having borne a child out of wedlock. The highlight is a central duet in which the nunl’s aunt comes to divest her of her inheritance to increase her younger sister’s dowry. This exchange simmers on a low flame until the heroine righteously demands information about her child. Heart-breaking news leads to suicide and a supernatural conclusion that some find unconvincing if not downright mawkish. I, on the other hand, love it and it slays me everytime.

This piece’s Achilles heel, besides the fact that the Blessed Virgin makes a guest appearance in the opera’s final moments (spoiler), is that as theater it tends to be static, relying heavily on a soprano with near-miraculous dramatic and vocal gifts to bring it to life. We have had such sopranos and in their hands its like a Reader’s Digest mash-up of Parsifal and Song of Bernadette, only in Italian. It’s practically a radio play, which makes it perfect for recordings.

Since nearly every soprano willing to don a habit has had a crack at Puccini’s tragic nun it’s no surprise that the promising young Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais would be eager to throw her wimple into the ring. On this very atmospheric performance on the Orfeo label with the forces of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln she is joined by her husband, Andris Nelsons, at the helm.

His conducting, as recorded from concert performances in May and October of 2011  is nearly faultless. Nelsons has the gift to use Puccini’s architecture for the drama without bringing the attention onto himself, in contrast to some of his showier colleagues in the same repertoire. This is also by far the best engineered performance of this opera I’ve ever heard, which comes as no surprise considering the label.

The Cologne Symphony displays a gorgeous delicacy in the string writing pizzicatos. The piccolo bird calls in the opening are perfectly placed in the orchestral fabric as are all the other sounds of nature written into the orchestration. I especially like the slightly off center chimes used in the opening and closing which have a rustic sound to them. Volume levels are kept moderate so you can actually hear the orchestral opening without knob-fiddling, which doesn’t always happen.

I’d also like to point to a wonderful swell and fade on the single note the oboe plays as the nuns wait for the name of their sister who has a visitor. It adds an unusual amount of tension to the moment that’s normally a stand still and it took me by grateful surprise.

A fine supporting cast of singers seem to be have been chosen from mostly local talent.  I won’t pretend that the interpreter of the chirpy Sister Genovieffa will make or break a performance but Mojca Erdmann is sweet voiced and true.  Angelica’s aunt, the Zia Principessa, is a particularly favorite role of mine , here solidly sung by German mezzo-soprano Lioba Braun. In spite of what sounds like a solid diet of Wagner and Verdi in her bio, she sounds more Mistress Quickly than Erda. Oddly she does “qvesto” once or twice.

The young Ms. Opolais was recently well received at the Royal Opera as Butterfly and on DVD as Rusalka, Elvira in Don Giovanni and Tatiana in Evgeney Onegin.  As a Puccini interpreter she has quite a bit going for herself. It’s a warm sizeable voice which has as its foundation what sounds like a very secure technique. She’s got the “vocal arc with the timed-release exploding high note followed the downward portamento” trick down cold.

The problem for me, and this is quibbling, is that she’s never, ever, off the voice. In the little exchange with Genovieffa when she’s asked if she has any earthly desires her answer,”Io? No…sorella no”. is sung completely straight where almost every other soprano gives her words the lie by using a more parlando approach.

Even the outburst where she finally confronts her Aunt is at most very solidly sung— hardly cold, but in a moment where some sopranos seem to heave their entire hearts into their mouths, Opolais remains slightly earthbound.

“Senza mamma” finds Opolais in very good form with excellent phrasing, breath to spare, and the tricky final note perfectly placed on a mezzo forte. In the finale she’s fearless on Puccini’s many top B’s and C’s.

So, high honors go to this set for the superior conducting and engineering and solid performances. After the heavens close back up at the end of the opera, Maestro Nelsons offers a loving version of Puccini’s Preludio Sinfonico as a bit of a balm.

  • operaassport

    Thanks for the wonderfully comprehensive review. You made me want to run out and buy it!

  • armerjacquino

    Smashing review. The question is: do I add to my ridiculously overstuffed ANGELICA collection… Thank god for spotify.

  • phoenix

    -- For those who like a generic delivery of this score with a pleasant non-committal (nothing disturbing, you know) interpretation, Opolais is filling a gap in the diminished commercial recording industry. She would have been great decades back as a Muzak crooner.
    -- Mack, you have a diplomatic way of saying what I thought when I first heard this performance on German radio broadcast. Your ‘quibble’ is entirely justified & sort of describes the difficulties I have putting up with Opolais in Italian opera. I am not ‘pulling the nationality card’ but Opolais sounds too far distant from the source for my ears -- it goes beyond unidiomatic. Her uneven Bayerischen Staatsoper Amelia in Boccanegra broadcast was even worse (it also came out on DVD with all glitches doctored up properly but dull).

    • operaassport

      Phoenix: get stuffed. And it took me 10 minutes to clean that up.

      • phoenix

        ‘get stuffed’? unlike aj Patrick Mack & Puccini I can take or leave Suor Angelica -- so far I have only one ‘stuff’ of a recording of it and that I am going to get rid of as soon as possible in the name of operaassport

        • manou

          Have you decided on the best way of disposing of the recording “in the name of operaassport”?

          • phoenix

            of course manou, when I get a hold of him I know just where to cram it

    • PetertheModest

      Opolais has a lot of assets, and received considerable praise for her Butterfly.

      • phoenix

        I heard the broadcast -- it was adequate but not that interesting to me -- she must have a magnetic stage presence -- NY Zack, aj & Kurwenal all seem to have been mesmerized by her in live performance. Sorry I never saw her, but I have enjoyed broadcasts of her as Rusalka & Tatjana in Onegin.

        • oedipe


          I haven’t seen/heard Opolais as Butterfly. But from what I did see/hear, either live or broadcast, I thought she was quite good in the Slavic rep and quite average and bland as Mimi and Magda.

        • PetertheModest

          This is a very interesting take on “One Fine Day”. Mainly through facial expressions and gestures, Opolais portrays Butterfly as someone who is living in a dream world. You know from this that reality will never live up to her fantasy.

          Opolais is pretty good as Tatiana as well, though you do have to see her as well as hear her for the full effect.

          • Clita del Toro

            Peter, are you kidding? Opolais does nothing here that Albanese didn’t do sixty years ago, except we now have it in close-up (and the singing is not as good). So, what else is new?

            • manou

              She is alive.

            • Clita del Toro

              Manou: Well, Peter was suggesting that Opolais’ interpretation of the aria was something novel, an “interesting take”. Really? LOL
              Anyway, Albanese is still alive! ;)

            • manou


            • marshiemarkII

              Older than Emilia Marty though :lol:

            • Clita del Toro

              Marshiest, LOL

          • Peter -- I’m asking this question not to challenge or criticize your opinions, but do you think there’s an unusual amount of sliding between notes going on here?

            Seriously, not being combative or trolling, really for my own edification. Thanks.

    • Feldmarschallin

      That Amelia was very disappointing but she was good as Rusalka and also as Tatjana. I will hear her Vittelia in a few weeks and have my doubts about that as well. She is not a Verdi singer.

    • Patrick Mack

      I love “too far distant from the source”. Ah, diplomacy. I’m stealing.

      • phoenix


  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    How quaint, a new CD. Remember record stores? I too will stick with my constellation of performances of this masterpiece.

  • grimoaldo

    I never liked this opera finding it mawkish and the denouement monumentally kitsch until I saw it,as intended, framed by Il Tabarro before it and Gianni Schicchi after it. First time it really got to me was a marvellous ENO production of Trittico with the super Cheryl Barker in the title role. I question whether it really does the work a service to present it on its own without its companion pieces.
    phoenix I think you are being a little rough on Opolais calling her “a Muzak crooner”. In this world where so many abominations tread the boards of the world’s leading opera houses, at least here is someone who actually manages to sing the notes written on the page and does something meaningful with them (unlike, for instance, the current exponent of Rosalinde at the Met).

    • grimoaldo

      Also unless I have seen or heard Tabarro first I find the all those nuns twittering about at the beginning of Angelica supreme yawnsville, it is a total snooze until the scene with the old auntie, but if Tabarro has come first the opening of Angelica has more interest, for me anyway, as establishing a different atmosphere and a totally different type of work.

      • MontyNostry

        But there’s an awful lot of preamble in Tabarro too (which in recent years has become one of my favourite Puccinis, along with Tosca and Turandot … all the T’s). I think that’s how Puccini ensures he hits you in the solar plexus with the musical and dramatic climaxes.

        • Porgy Amor

          To me, this is one of the most interesting things in my favorite period of Puccini — in Tabarro, Angelica and also earlier in Fanciulla he and the librettists take their time establishing an ordinary day, a plausible milieu. I’m never bored waiting for things to happen, because I’m enjoying all the deft touches of characterization and musical atmosphere that create a world in which those events will take place. This, to me, is an advance on the Tosca approach of “DAH-dah-dah-dah! Fugitive! Intrigue! Melodrama!” although the approach suited that material. What he was getting in the 1910s had a slower burn.

    • PetertheModest

      The Abominations should release an album. Nominations for The Abominations ?

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Grim, I’d have loved to have seen Cheryl Barker as Angelica. I saw her as Butterfly at ENO (pre-Minghella) and Emilia Marty twice, as well as Miss Jessel -- she’s a marvellous artist with a real spinto voice.

  • jimj

    Love this opera. But it’s hard to listen to anyone else after Scotto.

    • danpatter

      Yeah, those of us who grew up on Scotto, both her recording and the Met telecast/video, have a lot to be grateful for. The old Met staging had no miracle at the end, but it was all in her performance. She made you see what she saw. Gives me chills to remember it.

      • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

        And Stratas? Does no one remember her doing all three “Trittico” roles in one evening? I guess maybe you had to be there.

        • phoenix

          Yes I saw it -- it was a weeknight performance and Stratas had already cancelled the 3 previous Tritticos. I had bought the ticket months ahead & I assumed that she would cancel mine also, but she actually sang all 3 roles that night. She was really remarkable in Tabarro & Suor Angelica -- but for me she was no Lauretta-my favorite of the 3 Trittico heroines -- I think would have even preferred Opolais in the role compared to the somewhat hardened Stratas at that point in her career. I will never get used to the same singer in all 3 roles; Stratas did very well by the first two -- but the very short role of Lauretta requires something very different from the other two roles: something simple, natural, with the great beauty of emotional magnetism that can’t be faked -- you must have it within you, it can’t be acted. There is no time to act, no time for gimmicks. It just has to be there.
          -- One image of Stratas in the performance is etched permanently in memory -- she was on the left side of the stage (as viewed form the audience) at the point when Angelica realizes she has committed a mortal sin -- the panic, terror and desperation was not only in her voice but in her entire being -- her face turned very pale & she shook in very rapid but clipped convulsions, as if in a seizure.
          -- Stratas was my favorite Mélisande although I didn’t always care for her in many of her other roles.

          • danpatter

            Unfortunately, I had a ticket for one of Stratas’ canceled TRITTICOS. I’ve never quite forgiven her for that. Her replacement was really good, but not revelatory, as I am sure Stratas would have been.

  • Opera Teen

    I’m coming to love all three Trittico operas in their own way, and there are great recordings of each. I was watching the Met Scotto Tabarro today and that performance is just spectacular. For me, Tabarro is about the atmosphere. It’s engrained in the music (Besides an aria or two that further the action, the opera is moslty dramatic recit.). Schichi is about the laughs, but I haven’t figured out Suor yet. It’s about redemtion, yes, but I can’t put my finger on an overarching device. That, for me, is why I think Suor doesn’t translate well to audio recording. There has to be some dramatic visual presence, or you have to have an exceptional diva leading the recording. On this recording, you got neither and I found it a pretty boring rendering of this enigmatic opera. To each his/her own, of course.

  • Will

    I’ve loved Angelica ever since I first heard it as a kid in the de los Angeles/Barbieri recording, and i seek out live performances of it. Most cirectors fudge the “miracle” at the end as they are either embarrassed by it or refuse to show anything supernatural/religious on stage. I’ve seen too many productions where she dies in a pool of light and that’s that.

    Puccini prepped for the opera by visiting the convent where his sister was mother superior several times. The thought of this worldly, sophisticated, immensely sinful man sitting down to a simple dinner with a group of nuns to hear about their lives and devotions is irresistible. Late in his life he met a young, beautiful Austrian soprano named Rose Ader and they became lovers. Angelica was a specialty of hers which can only have deepened the attraction. Reputedly, Liu was written with her voice in mind but in the event, the premiere went to another soprano — had he lived she might have been in the first cast.

  • marshiemarkII