In the Academy of Vocal Arts’s (AVA) clever pairing of two Puccini works, there was every reason to expect the fix was in. 

Suor Angelica may not rival Boheme, Tosca or Butterfly for name recognition, but it’s masterful music theater that displays two of the composer’s greatest gifts—creating layered characters  and bringing an audience to tears—at their peak, and the melodic writing is glorious. Librettist Giovacchino Forzano deserves credit, too.

Le Villi, Puccini’s first opera, shows the beginnings of what’s to come, and has powerful moments. But it’s an odd piece of construction—a full-scale opera in miniature, based on a fairy tale (the tragic supernatural love story is a variant more familiar in the ballets Les Sylphides and Giselle) that in the hands of Puccini and librettist Ferdinando Fontana shuttles rather oddly between folksy charm and verismo excess.

So, yes… all bets were on Suor Angelica, which at AVA was performed first, to take top honors. As Ethel Merman famously remarked about her chances of winning a Tony over Mary Martin in The Sound of Music, “How are you going to beat a nun?”

Yet here it was Le Villi that made the strongest impression in every sense—dramatically, vocally, and orchestrally.

Conductor Richard A. Raub brought both shape and robustness to the arching musical line, and elicited a high level of playing from his orchestra, with particularly lovely blending in the strings. Stage director David Gately realized more details of the story than I would have thought possible under these relatively constrained circumstances.

There was considerable brio in the early wedding scenes (if they brought a hint of I Love Lucy’s “The Pleasant Peasant” sequence, that was all the more winning), and they even managed the lurid and dance-heavy finale with skill.

More to the point, much of Le Villi is an extended duet-into-trio sequence for the three principals—Anna, the village maid; Roberto, her lover; and Guglielmo, Anna’s father—and here, it benefitted from a simple staging that emphasized heartfelt communication.

And, of course, the singers. Rebecca Gulinello (Anna) has a lovely lyric soprano with a touch of smoky color and a sense of morbidezza. The upper register doesn’t always come into focus, and the voice lacks the cutting power that would be necessary to bring this off in a larger house (she’s more Ileana Cotrubas than Renata Scotto). But with her musicianship and graceful stage presence, Gulinello made something memorable of the role.

Tenor Mackenzie Gotcher (Roberto) and baritone Ethan Simpson (Guglielmo) have powerful voices that were displayed here at full-throttle. For Gotcher, that meant some thrilling singing in the middle and upper-middle registers, but frequently splayed at the top, getting on and off notes awkwardly.

It’s a terrific instrument—I hope he doesn’t over-extend it. In Simpson’s case, the voice remained well-knit throughout—he shows real promise for a future in the dramatic Italian baritone roles that are so often difficult to cast.

It was a good end to what had to that point been an underwhelming evening.

In Suor Angelica, the orchestra—led by AVA Music Director Cristofer Macatsoris—often sounded scrappy, poorly coordinated, and not always in tune. Macatsoris’s conducting veered from imaginative and lyrical (in the prologue and some of the interludes), to driven and poetry-free (in a too-fast “Senza mamma.”)

Gately’s production—on the same unit set also used for Le Villi, though with different background visual and slight adjustments—was hampered by technical problems with the projections. A bizarre opening sequence involving male war veterans, who presumably are being nursed at the convent, got things off to a weird start, before disappearing without no explanation.

More problematic and less forgivable were the awkward blocking and lack of any real dramatic detail. Often, Gately relied on stock gestures: the Zia Principessa seated, her back stiff and her gaze averted from Angelica; or Angelica herself, regularly falling to her knees.

Though these circumstances were non-optimal in terms of showcasing the singers, still there was some promise here. Alice Chung (the Zia Principessa) has a columnar mezzo with power and sheen; if she lacked the contralto depths some of the role calls for, she made a more than honorable vocal showing in this difficult character part (all the more so since she’s a first-year resident artist).

Claire de Monteil (Angelica) is clearly one of AVA’s great hopes—her roles have also included Ariadne and the Trovatore Leonora. It is certainly a wonderful voice, a glowing lyric soprano with a particular spin in the upper middle, but a substantial lower range, including a powerful chest voice. But as yet, there’s not much stage temperament. Her Italian is too soft-grained, and she doesn’t bring much specificity to words or dramatic actions.

In supporting roles, there was fine work from Gabriela Flores (Maestra delle Novizie), Pascale Spinney (Suor Infermiera), and especially Auby Ballarò, who brought considerable sparkle to Suor Genovieffa.

In all, a mixed bag of a production, but as always at AVA, some singing—and even some acting—of significant promise.