Il trittico, and particularly its middle opera Suor Angelica, have accompanied me throughout my professional journey – from student to soprano and then to mezzo soprano. I was 19 when Frederic Cox, Principal of the then Royal Manchester College cast me as La Badessa, in Suor Angelica, my first ever operatic part. Il trittico had been written 50 years earlier (1918) and, here I am, within three years of the opera’s centenary, performing the part of La Zia Principessa having, as a soprano, performed the title role of Suor Angelica at La Scala, Milan in 1983 (recorded on DVD). As far as I know, in the opera’s history no-one has ever performed these two main characters, let alone the third.
It is not easy to find the very heart of this story, perhaps because there are two huge moments both of which must be made to work for the opera to tear at the heart strings. The first part of the opera deals with life at the convent (I was brought up as a Catholic and endured the discipline of the nuns at my convent school which gives me insight into the structure and rigours of a convent). Puccini brilliantly explores the different types of behaviour, the pecking order, and the various jobs and skills of the nuns and Angelica’s herbal skills. This gentle and sometimes comical start though is deliberately there to build towards the first climatic moment. We are aware through the gossip of the nuns and later the appearance of the two “Sorelle Cercatrici” that there is a mystery surrounding Suor Angelica. The grand carriage which has been seen outside throws Angelica into turmoil and so it is that she discovers from La Badessa that she is to receive a visit from her Aunt, the Princess (La Zia Principessa).
This scene is extraordinary. Having performed both the roles I can understand why it can be directed so many different ways. Angelica forces out of her Aunt the news about her illegitimate son – her reason for being banished by her illustrious family to the convent. Some play the Aunt as a cold-hearted tyrant, but when I was Angelica, I saw the Aunt in a different light. In productions where I have performed La Zia Principessa (this is my third) I did not feel the Aunt should be played that way. In fact I find her a very frightened and apprehensive person, terrified of having to see her niece, knowing she will have to tell her the news of the death of her son. She uses all the powers of her royal breeding to hide behind formality and correctness. She is stiff, cold, upright and hopeful that, using only the document which parts Angelica from her inheritance, she can get through the interview and leave. It is not to be. Angelica, in total despair and desperation, uses every means at her disposal to force her Aunt to tell her of her son, including using the Virgin who is watching and will be her judge. The dreadful news of his death, two years earlier reduces her to a near faint and convulsive sobbing. Puccini actually writes into the score that La Zia makes a move towards Angelica and, in that small stage direction, I feel a bond of love, family, happy times with her beloved sister and her sister’s eldest daughter, but only for the briefest of moments. I think the character of La Zia Principessa can show humanity and warmth which ultimately makes her a far more tragic character than if she is played only as a judgemental, moralising noble-woman.
One of the most gorgeous arias for soprano ever written, ‘Senza Mamma, o bimbo, tu sei morto’ (‘You died, my child, without your mother’) is the bridge between the earthly drama and the move to the second climatic heavenly sequence. In a completely transcendental state, Angelica goes to her herb garden, mixes a deadly potion and takes it. Instantly she realises she has committed a mortal sin, damning herself for eternity, and she cries out to the Virgin repeatedly asking for forgiveness. I once heard the great Sir Peter Hall talking about Don Giovanni and saying that it can only really work if you play it as a straight morality play. “The audience,” he said, “must believe in the concept of heaven and hell at the end.” I believe this exactly the same message in Suor Angelica. That sublime music at the end, the heavenly choir, the stage directions in the score all point towards “A Miracle”. If it works, you will need your handkerchief.