21 December 2009

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Salvaging SUOR ANGELICA

Geraldine Farrar as Suor Angelica and Flora Perini as the Zia Principessa in the world premiere of Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photo by White Studio]

Among composers who applied their talents to the quest for glory in the opera house, there are few who did not produce works, whether juvenilia or simply troublesome or uninspired, that they later preferred to ignore or deny.  Mozart, for instance, was little concerned during his work with Lorenzo da Ponte in the 1780’s with the pre-Idomeneo Italian operas of his earlier career, and despite noting the remarkable achievements represented by these scores as works of an uncommonly prodigious youth later audiences and musicologists have largely validated Mozart’s neglect of these operas.  Far rarer, however, are instances in which a score greatly prized by its composer is, though met with a measure of success, ultimately dismissed by critics and public alike, whether on dramatic or musical grounds.  In these cases, questions are invariably raised concerning the integrity of the affected composers’ instincts.  How is a situation in which a composer dearly loves a score at which ‘serious’ musicians and music lovers snicker to be interpreted?  Can the musical sensibilities of a composer whose sentimentality fosters lasting affection for an otherwise derided score be trusted?  Even knowing that Giacomo Puccini held the score dearest among his creations, Suor Angelica remains almost a century after its premiere a divisive and, to many opera lovers, embarrassing work.

Geraldine Farrar as Suor Angelica [Photo by White Studio]

Even in the wake of its world premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on 14 December 1918, with a cast that included Geraldine Farrar as Angelica and Flora Perini as the Zia Principessa, Suor Angelica was a much-debated opera.  Critic W.J. Henderson wrote of the score in The Evening Sun that the music ‘is almost always metronomic, dull, drilling upon its theme with the persistence of a dentist at a tooth.  There is no blood or bone to it, no strength to uphold the…concept.’  Mr. Henderson went on to praise Geraldine Farrar for providing, through dignified acting and imperfect singing, ‘what good impression the short tragedy made.’  Other contemporary critics likewise focused their notices on the strengths of Miss Farrar’s performance rather than on the score itself, while receiving mostly positively the verismo blood and thunder of Il Tabarro and the vaudevillian comedy of Gianni Schicchi, Suor Angelica’s companion pieces in Il Trittico.  It was decided almost immediately that Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi functioned better without what Mr. Henderson called the central ‘andante,’ Suor Angelica.  In the ninety-one years since its first night at the MET, Suor Angelica has received (through the Saturday matinee performance on 12 December 2009) seventy-four performances at the MET, all of them in complete presentations of Il Trittico: Gianni Schicchi has been performed 138 times, while La Bohème received its 1,208th MET outing on 10 January 2009 (it returns to the MET’s repertory for nine more performances in spring 2010).  The sopranos who have sung Angelica at the MET form an exclusive sorority: following Miss Farrar, Gilda Cruz-Romo, Teresa Zylis-Gara, Renata Scotto, Teresa Stratas, Diana Soviero, Barbara Frittoli, and Patricia Racette.

Barbara Frittoli as Suor Angelica in Jack O'Brien's 2007 MET production [Photo by Ken Howard]

The gestation of Il Trittico and of Suor Angelica in particular was difficult.  Based upon Puccini’s correspondence with his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, it is surmised that Puccini began considering composing a triptych of one-act operas as early as 1904, following the great success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and the premieres of his own Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904).  With commitments to New York for La Fanciulla del West (1910) and Vienna for La Rondine (1917; the premiere took place in Monte Carlo due to World War I), Puccini’s diary was consumed even without the distractions of the lingering effects of a near-fatal automobile accident suffered in 1903 and the 1909 scandal resulting from his wife’s wrongful accusations of adultery against their maid, the maid’s subsequent suicide, and a successful and much-publicized lawsuit brought against Puccini’s wife by the maid’s family.  Moreover, the death of Ricordi in 1912 brought Puccini’s work to a virtual halt.  Puccini worked at his Trittico, however, freed from Ricordi’s objections to the nature of the composition.  The disruption of all aspects of European life by WWI made a Continental premiere for Trittico virtually impossible, so when the success (ensured by the participation of Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato, with Arturo Toscanini conducting) of Fanciulla del West led the MET to accept the work, Puccini agreed to the New York premiere.  The composer was keen from the start that Trittico should be performed complete (that is, with all three operas in place and in the designated sequence) and was appalled by the notion that any of the Trittico operas should be extracted and performed alongside the works of other composers.

Puccini expressed on many occasions, including to Giovacchino Forzano (his librettist for Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi), that Suor Angelica was his favorite not only of the Trittico operas but among all his works to date.  As he composed Suor Angelica, Puccini drew upon his family’s long tradition as composers of liturgical music in his hometown of Lucca, as well as further exploring the vein of the dichotomy inherent in affairs of church and individual that he had tapped so memorably in Tosca.  Puccini was closely acquainted with monastic life, his sister Iginia having been resident for forty years at the time at which he was composing Suor Angelica at the Augustinian convent at Vicopelago.  Puccini often visited his sister, who eventually became Prioress, and made a gift of a harmonium (still in use) to the convent.  The oft-told story of Puccini playing the score of Suor Angelica to his sister (who was known in her order as Suor Giulia Enrichetta) and her community at the convent, most of whom were moved to tears by the music, is perhaps apocryphal, but it is certain that Puccini brought first-hand knowledge and genuine respect to his operatic depiction of convent life.

the Monastero della Visitazione di Vicopelago, where Puccini's sister Iginia was an Augustinian Prioress

Both musically and dramatically, it has often been suggested that Suor Angelica is too saccharine to be taken seriously.  Without question, the presentation of miraculous redemption in the final scene (surely envisioned by Puccini as a profoundly moving coup de théâtre) both exploits the theme of maternal love that was at the heart of the final act of Madama Butterfly and defies logic and Roman Catholic dogma.  Even looking beyond the obvious parallels with Massenet’s 1902 Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, however, this is not an infrequent theme in opera.  The self-sacrificial Senta is the instrument of presumed (and equally implausible) redemption in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, and his Brünnhilde – a deeply-flawed woman – ends the Ring with a similar sacrifice that not only redeems errant mankind but also restores natural order and severs the bonds between men and corrupt, philandering gods.  To consider Angelica only among her Puccini brethren, there is also Tosca, another deeply faithful woman forced by circumstance to sin and suicide.  Despite her crimes, Tosca’s final cry of ‘O Scarpia, avanti a dio!’ suggests that she anticipates at least having the opportunity to plead her case before the Divine Judgment: damnation is not a forgone conclusion.

In a sense, Angelica might be viewed as a synthesis of Puccinian and Wagnerian womanhood.  What if, like Sieglinde in Die Walküre, Tosca had learned as she prepared for her fatal jump from the parapet that, unmarried and already an unwilling murderess, she was expecting Cavaradossi’s child?  Might not the religious Tosca, prolific in her adoration of the Madonna, have taken refuge in a religious order following the birth of her unfortunate child, too damaged to be a proper mother to her child but too connected to abandon him through death?  Pursuing this idea, perhaps the Zia Principessa is Puccini’s Fricka, the stern representative of the ‘proper’ family for whom preservation of traditional order trumps compassion.  It has been said that Puccini’s depiction of Angelica’s salvation is grotesque in its sickly effort at inspiring tears and disregard for the Catholic implications of her suicide.  Does not Wagner make it implicit in the closing bars of Götterdämmerung by prominently restating the motif to which Sieglinde – perpetrator of incestuous adultery and intended suicide – sang ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ that she, perhaps more meaningfully than Brünnhilde, has been the instrument of redemption by sacrificing her happiness and finally her life for her child?  Almost any scholar would argue that Wagner’s music in Götterdämmerung is more sophisticated, more important than Puccini’s in the final scene of Suor Angelica, but can it be said to be more heartfelt?

Sincerity is at the heart of Suor Angelica.  By all accounts, Puccini was not a religious man, but there is not in Suor Angelica even the slightest hint of parody (as is decidedly not the case in Tosca).  Much has been made of the incongruity of a nun, the participant in a life dedicated to contemplation of Scripture, achieving salvation after commission of the mortal sin of suicide.  The Church is respected, even venerated through subtle suggestions of mysticism, in Suor Angelica, but Puccini’s emphasis is laid unquestionably on Angelica as a woman, as an individual rather than an anonymous portion of a cloistered whole.  When Angelica rejects the notion that she still harbors connections with the world outside her convent, the other Sisters mutter their disagreement as if to reiterate that, for all her piety and surrender to the uniformity of her monastic community, Angelica remains an individual.  To some extent, this is an inversion of Butterfly’s rejection by her family when she adopts Christian beliefs in order to conform with her new husband’s lifestyle.  For Angelica, inclusion in her monastic sisterhood resulted from exclusion from her own family: as with Butterfly, exclusion from the comfortable family unit intensifies the connection with her child, all the more pitifully in Angelica’s case as she only has conjured images of a child she has not seen since his infancy.  Puccini does not attempt psychological profundity in his portrayal of Angelica’s grief, focusing instead on the emotional impact of her receipt of the news of her child’s death.  Puccini nonetheless avoids even marginally portraying the convent (or, by association, faith) as restrictive: oppression enters the opera with the Zia Principessa and, after her departure, remains only in the form of Angelica’s grief.  Throughout the opera, there is no artifice in Puccini’s depictions of Angelica’s suffering.  Her repentance in the final scene is genuine, and salvation is her reward.  It is what might be called an ‘artist’s rendering’ of Providence rather than an ecclesiastical depiction, but it is not effacingly cloying.

Austrian/Croatian soprano Sena Jurinac as Suor Angelica at La Scala

Musically, it is not difficult to underestimate the sophistication of Puccini’s score.  Though both Suor Genovieffa (in her recollection of her Arcadian pursuits prior to entering the convent) and the Zia Principessa (in her exhortation to penance) enjoy prolonged, subtly-developed melodic lines, the only true aria in Suor Angelica is the heroine’s ‘Senza mamma,’ the mother’s formidable lament – requiring ascents to exposed top A’s not unlike the climax of Butterfly’s famous ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ – upon learning from her aunt of her son’s death.  It cannot be denied that Puccini’s efforts at tone-painting are sometimes inconsistent and amusingly literal (the braying of donkeys as the alms sisters approach in Suor Angelica being a typical example) and that there are instances throughout his scores of motivic devices that are strange and inappropriate (of which the recurrence of Colline’s ‘Vecchia zimarra’ in the final bars of La Bohème can be cited).  Puccini’s use of musical symbolism was more careful in Suor Angelica, however.  The prevailing motif is that of flowers, which under Angelica’s care adorn both the paths of the living and the graves of the dead, bring relief to the ill, and finally grant Angelica release from life.  Metaphorically, flowers might be interpreted as extensions of faith in their inherent incarnation of the Biblical notions of sewing and reaping and also as representations of the metaphysical Trinity of life, death, and resurrection.  Puccini avoids overloading his musical depictions of the flowers that are crucial to Angelica’s existence within the convent with effects that distort the focus of the music.  Instead, the score depicts Angelica’s perceptions of her flowers, the woodwinds in the opera’s first scene expressing the wonder Angelica feels as she supervises the growth of her charges.  Later, as she prepares the herbal instrument of her death, Angelica’s agitation is calmed by the comforting presence of her floral escape, conveyed by the strings.  It might be argued in this regard that the compactness of Suor Angelica is very much in its favor: there is little opportunity, in the opera’s fifty or so minutes, for either extravagances or shortcomings.  Puccini’s caution with the tonal palette in Suor Angelica rendered a score that depicts his heroine’s increasingly inexorable fate without imposing on it unwarranted grandeur or obvious social commentary.  The delicacy of the scoring, even in moments of greatest emotional (and tonal) catharsis, emphasizes the sincerity of Puccini’s approach.

Often regarded as a poor companion to her sisters among the heroines of Puccini’s mature operas, Suor Angelica is nonetheless perhaps the most dramatically honest of Puccini’s creations.  It might be argued that the melodramatic trials depicted by Puccini in other operas were already in Angelica’s past: Puccini encountered her as she commenced her ‘end game,’ when all that remained for her was to lose her one connection with human existence, necessitating a directness that was not required of his maidens whose stories are told over three or four acts.  The collective cognoscenti scoff at those who weep for Angelica as she is miraculously reunited with her son and at Puccini for having devoted his art to telling her story.  Were it obvious that Puccini’s affection for Suor Angelica was based solely in sentimentality, a measure of contempt might be justified.  His heart having been engaged so genuinely, though, Puccini produced a score that, for all its supposed flaws, applies an impressionistic array of pastel colors to a black-and-white tale of suffering, loss, and salvation.  When the music is as beautiful as it often is in Suor Angelica, is it so wrong for us to remember those we have loved who have gone wrong but pursued hope to redemption and to shed a tear for a nun who, like the Blessed Mother she venerates, follows her son to heaven?

Patricia Racette as Suor Angelica at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo by Ken Howard]