Hollywood Does L. A. Opera – Part II
Giacomo Puccini’s favorite of the three operas of the Trittico was “Suor Angelica” and it annoyed him greatly that opera companies would drop it from an evening’s program and perform only “Tabarro” and “Gianni Schicchi” (or one of those two operas paired with something entirely different). It annoyed him even further if the stage directors presented the opera’s “miracle”, in which the Virgin Mary forgives Sister Angelica’s suicide, as Angelica’s hallucination, rather than an event that is supposed to be really happening.
L. A. Opera, as part of its Puccini sesquicentennial observances, honored the great Italian composer with yet another 150th birthday present. It gave the assignment to direct “Suor Angelica” to film director William Friedkin, a genius who has proven to be attentive to an opera composer’s intentions and whose body of work includes films that treat religious beliefs respectfully.
The opera’s management also decided to give proper consideration to Puccini’s opinion that the opera he composed was worthy of being taken seriously and would yield dividends if care were taken in its casting and production. Accordingly, the conductor for the entire Trittico was James Conlon, leading the now unambiguously world class Los Angeles Opera Orchestra.
Cast in the two principal roles were American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Angelica and Russian mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova as Angelica’s aunt, the Principessa. The stage settings (as were all three Trittico operas) were assigned to the esteemed Broadway and Hollywood set designer Santo Loquasto. The chorus master, Grant Gershon, and the lighting designer Mark Jonathan had important roles to play in bringing this opera to light.
[Below: the Santo Loquasto set for the nun's cloister; edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]
Screenplay by Forzano
Like “Il Tabarro”, Friedkin’s other directorial assignment of the evening, the brevity and organization of “Suor Angelica” has a cinematic feel. Thus, it is possible to think of Gioacchino Forzano’s libretto as a screenplay constructed in three parts.
The first part seems to be involved with what we who live outside the cloister would regard as banal considerations – what is the appropriate punishment for a sister who has hidden a rose in her habit, or another sister who has been late for services – but within this first section there are clues to the highly dramatic latter parts of the opera.
[Below: Suor Angelica (Sondra Radvanovsky) tends her garden of medicinal herbs; edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]
Sister Angelica, who tends a garden of herbs and medicinal plants, is consulted on the herbal remedy for a wasp sting, and it is not a surprise to us that later in the opera, Angelica will use her knowledge of plants to brew a fatal poison.
A conversation as to whether it is appropriate for sisters to have desires leads to Suor Angelica’s first sustained musical episode I desideri sono i fiori dei vivi, from which we begin to understand how lack of information about the family she has had to leave weighs on her.
It is the lyrical I desideri that established a bond between Radvanovsky and her Los Angeles audience. At a pause in the music, she received a resounding ovation and from that point on it was clear that the often disrespected “Suor Angelica” was to become a surprise hit in Los Angeles.
The soaring orchestral interludes that follow demonstrate that the music of “Suor Angelica” can be considered a precursor of the symphonic scores for cinematic films that came to be recognized as an important part of movie-making a dozen years later.
[Below: Suor Angelica (Sondra Radvanovsky) is devastated by information she has wrested from La Zia Principessa (Larissa Diadkova); edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]
The most memorable part of previous productions of “Suor Angelica” has almost always been the appearance in the cloister of La Zia Principessa, Angelica’s stern aunt and guardian, who forced her to take the veil when she gave birth to an illegitimate child, entering Angelica’s life once again to require her signature relinquishing all claim to her inheritance.
Diadkova, as expected, delivered a seering portrait of an unsympathetic woman, who cannot comprehend how there can be any form of compassion for someone whose trangressions she believes have compromised the family honor.
But as remarkable as was Diadkova’s performance, it was Radvanovsky who was able to project the full range of emotions that Angelica feels for the son taken from her at birth, deprived by a heartless family of his mother’s love.
This sets up the opera’s third phase, in which, having learned her son has died, Angelica determines to join him in heaven. Emotionally wrought, she mixes a potion, drinks it, and then is in agony for having committed a mortal sin. Radvanovsky’s part is enhanced by restoration of an interesting short aria on the toxic flowers she will use, routinely cut throughout the 20th century. Praying to the Virgin Mary, Angelica asks for a miracle to allow her to join her son to give him the mother’s comfort he never had.
Then Friedkin provides an ending of which one can be reasonably certain that Puccini, who loved theatrical effect, would have approved. With a firmament of stars as her background, the Virgin Mary descends from heaven and, suspended halfway in the air, points to the cloister’s small chapel whose doors have opened for her cherubic son to come to her as heavenly light shines through a stained glass window at the front of the chapel.
[Below: Suor Angelica (Sondra Radvanovsky) joins her son in heaven under the protection of the Virgin Mary; edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]
Friedkin, to make sure that no one interprets this as Angelica’s hallucination, has other nuns appear to witness the miracle and fall on their knees praying. It proved an affecting experience. The Los Angeles audience greeted the ending and the performance as a whole with a long and sustained standing ovation.
The large cast includes Ronnita Nicole Miller (the Abbess), Tichina Vaughn (the Monitor), Jennifer Black (Sister Genovieffa), Angel Blue (Sister Osmina) and Danielle Walker (Sister Dolcina).
The success of Friedkin’s “Suor Angelica” is a good sign that Friedkin’s participation in a new San Francisco Opera-La Scala production of Boito’s “Mefistofele”, another work whose cosmological underpinnings must be taken seriously, should prove a worthy effort.