Sister Angelica has been sentenced to a convent by her aristocratic family to atone for the sin of having a child out of wedlock. Virtually disowned, she yearns for nothing more than to be restored to her family. . .especially to the son she was forced to surrender. This is the tragic tale of Suor Angelica which is currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre under the auspices of Opera Omaha.
This opera is part of Il trittico, a trio of one acts written by Giacomo Puccini dealing with death. And death is definitely a prominent theme. Not just physical death, but also emotional death. Spiritual death. The death of hope. And all of it wrapped in a fetid box of hypocrisy masquerading as faith. In the midst of all this tragedy and gloom rises that mustard seed of faith which truly does have the power to move mountains and grant true peace.
Keturah Stickann really does yeoman work with this production. When a show is this short (barely more than an hour), a director doesn’t have the luxury of a methodical build and resolution. The beats come fast and furious and compel the director to help her or his performers reach emotional highs and lows on the turn of a dime and the spur of a moment. Stickann does this effortlessly. Her direction especially shines with the intense meeting between Sister Angelica and her aunt, La Principessa and Sister Angelica’s descent into a depressive fugue. Stickann even manages to add some humor at the top of the opera with some of the nuns trying to outpious each other with vows of ridiculously demeaning and self-abusing acts of penance for minor “sins”.
Ronnita Miller is an imperious presence as La Principessa. Miller uses her powerful mezzo-soprano like a sword as she cuts down Sister Angelica with her scorn. Clearly she holds no love for her niece and is implied to be the force that motivated the family to deposit Sister Angelica at the convent with her litany of atonement. Even her kindness, such as it is, is wrapped in a terrible cruelty as she shares the status of Sister Angelica’s son with a frigid coldness, albeit a slight reluctance to indicate she truly did want to avoid causing her niece pain.
On Elaine Alvarez’s shoulders rides the weight of this show in the title role of Sister Angelica and she bears that weight with incredible strength and grace. Alvarez has a crystal-clear soprano with superhuman projection power that always suited each emotional beat from utter joy to complete devastation. Alvarez also has some formidable acting chops as she strikes just the right note of anger and defiance with her aunt to shedding genuine tears when she learns of the tragedy of her son.
The baton of Judith Yan is a paintbrush creating a beautiful landscape. From the gentle tolling of a church bell to a nearly audible gasp of realization after poison has been drunk, Yan and her musicians create an almost living presence that serves as the opera’s lifeblood. S.A. Panfili has designed a simple and effective set highlighted by a chapel and fountain. Betty Fredrickson’s clerical garb is right on target. J. Isadora Krech has created some very atmospheric lighting especially in the final scene where a bit of fog and a backlight create a hopeful and heavenly vision.
My only disappointment is that the story takes a back seat to its themes. A lot of crucial story elements are implied rather than explicitly stated and it seemed there was a fuller story waiting to bloom. Still, the music, acting, and singing serve to fill in those gaps mighty well and make for a more than effective tragedy.
Suor Angelica has one more performance on Feb 26 at 2pm. Tickets range from $19-$99 and can be purchased at www.ticketomaha.com. The Orpheum Theatre is located at 409 S 16th St in Omaha, NE.
Photo Credit: Opera Omaha–Casey Wood