Opolais gives a heartbreaking portrayal in BSO’s “Suor Angelica”

February 22, 2019 at 5:32 pm

By Andrew J. Sammut

Kristin Opolais performed the title role in Puccini's "Suor Angelica" Thursday night with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Winslow Townson

Kristine Opolais performed the title role in Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” Thursday night with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Winslow Townson

Not often does it happen that a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert is all about the voices. But such was the case Thursday night with Andris Nelsons leading a large cast of singers in a performance of Puccini’s Suor Angelica.

Puccini’s one-act opera was his favorite of “Il Trittico,” the triptych of which Angelica is the middle work. The scenario tells the story of Sister Angelica, exiled to a convent for giving birth out of wedlock. Years pass without any word from her family until Angelica’s aunt comes to settle the family estate and she finds out her illegitimate child is dead. Angelica is driven to suicide, realizes she has committed another sin, and finds forgiveness before God prior to her death.

The themes of shame, repentance, and absolution unfolded within Puccini’s uniquely expressive harmonies and orchestration at Symphony Hall.  A cast of sopranos, mezzos and altos, and a large orchestra provided big effects as well as small instrumental touches, both onstage and off.

Kristine Opolais delivered a gut-wrenching yet exhilarating performance in the title role. The soprano brought power to the dramatic peaks— her confrontation with her estranged aunt—as well as touching sensitivity to the quieter moments, as when Angelica provides medicine to a sick nun. Angelica’s big aria “Senza Mamma,” was technically polished and a showcase for the soprano’s lyrical sustained lines, tasteful vibrato, and dramatic intensity. Angelica’s declaration of suicide was sweetly chilling as sung by Opolais; the nun was clearly looking forward to reuniting with her loved one in death.

MaryAnn McCormick’s mezzo was both warm and authoritative as the monitor of the abbey. Mezzo Violeta Urmana’s soft accent on the words “padre” and “madre” and her measured but still forceful exultations to atone brought a refreshing touch of empathy to Angelica’s icy aunt.

Fatma Said’s silvery soprano was well-suited to the girlish Sister Genovieffa, and Dana Beth Miller’s forceful mezzo firmly laid down the convent law as the Abbess. The guest voices of the Lorelei Ensemble were poised, convincing, and beautiful, with distinct tones and characterization in both solo and ensemble, whether teasing a fellow sister or calling to Angelica from heaven.

Eve Summer’s simple but effective semi-staging guided the narrative arc and underlined Puccini’s allusions to sacred music, such as split small choirs or brief duets. The all-female cast was attired in traditional concert evening gowns while acting their parts with minimal but telling movements.

Nelsons’ balances were sometimes a problem, as with the orchestra overwhelming Angelica’s farewells. The offstage choral effects and choir and brass playing from Symphony Hall’s aisles did not fare well, obscuring the music and giving the odd effect of salvation calling out from underneath an “Exit” sign.

Yet overall the BSO under its music director highlighted Puccini’s touches of dissonance and ambiguous cadences, showing the subtle craftsmanship and sophistication of a composer still best known for his lyrical arias more than his ingenious orchestration.

Lili Boulanger’s D’Un Soir Triste opened the program. The sister of the famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger had her promising career as a composer cut tragically short by her early death at 24. This tone poem was the last work she was able to compose in her own hand, essentially written on her deathbed.

The loud, bass-heavy performance felt more like an orchestral exposition than a personal meditation depicting a sad night in dark, impressionist shades. In addition to the narrow dynamic range, there were more balancing issues as well as slack entrances by the brass.

Debussy’s Nocturnes followed with far better balances and interpretive impact. Debussy’s atmospheric tonality and rich but discreet orchestration in these three dreamlike scenes cn sometimes merely wash over a listener. Yet under under Nelsons’ baton the opening “Nuages” (Clouds) really moved, carrying the music forward. Robert Sheena rendered his English horn solo with the gracefulness of a ballet dancer. In “Fêtes” the BSO cut loose with flurrying lines and well-timed crescendos, the percussion adding color as well as bite.

For the final movement, the Lorelei Singers returned as the wordless choir of “Sirènes.” Despite the potential dynamic challenges, Nelsons gave the voices plenty of room in terms of texture and pacing. Lorelei’s open tone and vocal timbres added a slightly gutsy touch beyond just being a plush cushion. These sirens were strong as well as seductive.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Opolais gives a heartbreaking portrayal in BSO’s “Suor Angelica””

  1. Posted Feb 22, 2019 at 10:55 pm by Richard Riley

    With impeccable style and grace Kristine Opolais transformed the audience with cathartic torment of sublime elegance . Her rendition of Suor Angelica captures the heartache with such aplomb , you realize that she must be Puccini’s Lady of the Rose. Her subtlety of delicate singing of Suor Angelica fulfills the composers intention of the sweetness of melancholy and redemption. Truly she must have been born to sing this opera with such magnificence.

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