|Leonarda Priore and Megan Nielson (photo by Janette Pellegrini)
Although not billed as a "site specific" work, Chelsea Opera's choice to set Giacomo Puccini's Suor Angelica in Christ and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church was a fine idea, in spite of the uncomfortable pews and poor sightlines. The acoustics are excellent and the atmosphere suggestive of the 17th c. convent to which poor Angelica had been hustled seven years before the opera began.
In 21st c. America, women may deliberately have the babies they want without "benefit" of matrimony; indeed, many of them do. But until very recently, bearing a child out of wedlock was considered shameful, sinful, and deserving of scorn. In many parts of the world it still is.
In Suor Angelica's case, she has dishonored her prominent aristocratic family and was given no choice but to be locked away for life. Nonetheless she appears to have made a life for herself within the convent walls, becoming an expert in herbs and flowers.
Soprano Megan Nielsen was superb in the title role. Her voice filled the church with a ringing tone and her vocal colors varied according to the emotional changes she underwent-- from her almost cheerful entrance to the grief when she learned that her child had died, to the resolute decision to take her life, to the panic she felt when realizing she had committed a mortal sin, to the rapture she felt when she believed herself to be forgiven by the Virgin Mary and to be reunited with her lost son.
No less wonderful was mezzo-soprano Leonarda Priore who inhabited the role of La Zia Principessa as if she were born to it. She has come to the convent to visit her niece Suor Angelica and if you were in the latter's shoes, you might have been delighted about the visit and wondering if you'd been forgiven for your transgression.
But no, such is not the case. This stunningly remote character has nothing but scorn for her sister's child and has come to the convent to get her niece to sign away any rights to her inheritance because her younger sister is to be married. The frigid air with which Ms. Priore colored her rich mezzo-soprano was chilling, even in the warmth of the church. The confrontation was so painful, we felt all of Zia Principessa's rejection; the coldness with which she told her niece that her child had died had our eyes brimming over with tears.
The huge cast did not have a weak link. Many of them have a history with Chelsea Opera and some were making auspicious debuts. Soprano Terina Westmeyer portrayed La Badessa and the role of the punitive Suora Zelatrice was portrayed by mezzo Juliana Curcio. Soprano Joanie Brittingham was lovely as the young Suor Genovieffa.
The other sisters were beautifully sung by Juli Borst, Samantha Geraci-Yee, Evelyn Carr, Kimmy Norrell, Mary Kathryn Monday, Jennifer Allenby, Rachel Weishoff, Ali Funkhouser, Alexandra M. Priore, Erin Brittain, Elizabeth Moulton, Loren Silber, and Sandy MacDonald.
Carol Wilson did a fine job of directing, establishing a functional community of women. Costuming by Brent Barkhaus involved simple white habits for the nuns but a long black dress for Zia Principessa that perfectly echoed her stiff personality. Although there was no set, the astute lighting of Alexander Bartenieff was effective in showing the changing emotional content.
The four-member male chorus sounded fine as the voices of angels, adding to our impression of strong musical values.
This powerful and tightly focused opera is the centerpiece of Puccini's Il Trittico and clocks in at under an hour. As "curtain raisers", Maestro Benjamin Grow did an admirable job of conducting the superb Chelsea Opera Chamber Orchestra in three short pieces, with the most interesting (to us lovers of vocal music) the "Salve Regina" beautifully sung by soprano Samantha Kantak, accompanied by Daniel Ficarri on the organ--a very special treat.
There will be one more performance tonight and we urge you to "get to the church on time" because last night there was "standing room only".
(c) meche kroop