Marie-Louise James

Suor Angelica by Giacomo Puccini first premiered in 1918 as the second in his trio of one-act operas, entitled Il trittico. With a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano, Suor Angelica sets its action in a seventeenth century Italian convent and examines the day to day routines and secret desires of its inhabitants. One nun in particular, Suor Angelica (Parvathi Subbiah), raises speculation amongst her sisters; could it be her family banished her to the convent as punishment for some unknown disgrace? Answers arrive in the form of Angelica’s aunt, La Zia Principessa (Chloe Allison), who reveals that seven years ago her niece gave birth to an illegitimate child. Without giving away the tragic ending, suffice it to say that the Princess’ news proves too much for Angelica to handle, driving her to take drastic action.

"As one might expect from a Puccini opera, the musical texture is rich, and at its most sweeping in the tragic final moments."

As one might expect from a Puccini opera, the musical texture is rich, and at its most sweeping in the tragic final moments. The Empyrean Ensemble, conducted by Edward Reeve, excellently captures the various moods of the action, evoking reflectiveness, tenderness, fear and ecstasy. The balance with the singers on the whole was good, with lower vocal lines occasionally slipping beneath the orchestra but still far from inaudible. The singing was on the whole very good, often excellent, and it was a treat to enjoy such a range of female voices in one evening, when so often composers are reluctant to write such a variety of soprano and alto roles as a convent setting facilitates.

Subbiah stands out as both the dramatic and vocal highlight, however; from her earliest moments on stage she shines as a woman full of warmth and spirit, and her final moments are especially moving as her voice soars over the orchestra, begging the Madonna for mercy. As is always a risk with lesser known works, and especially with those where the audience doesn’t have access to a fully translated libretto (though in this case the audience is given a helpful programme which translates twenty key sections), the sense of some smaller moments is lost on the audience, but Subbiah in particular is skilled at guiding the audience through Angelica’s emotional highs and lows.

Allison works well as a foil to Subbiah, convincingly austere whilst at the same time clearly tortured by the news she is forced to impart. Allison did especially well with diction, lending her princess a suitably curt quality. Smaller roles were also well crafted, with Lottie Greenhow’s Suor Genovieffa as a sincerely sweet presence, with a vocal quality to match. On the whole, the ensemble of singers worked well, carefully directed by Anna Moody, though I must admit that I found the staging somewhat restrictive. Entering via the aisle and performing in front of the orchestra, who were placed before the altar, the nuns felt somewhat penned in by the playing space – perhaps not a bad thing, however, for a group of women yearning for something outside the convent walls.


Mountain View

The Bastardisation of Grief

Overall, my concerns were relatively few. The use of lights bothered me, as this was a production without stage lights (which in itself was not a problem), but the harsh overhead lights of the chapel meant that the inclusion of tiny electric tea lights in the pews and lanterns on stage were not as impactful as they could have been. The chapel itself, a pleasingly atmospheric performance space, did not quite feel as intimate as it could have. My only other major quibble was with the material itself: before attending I overhead someone mention they had once seen a production and described it as ‘honestly quite dull, just about loads of nuns’. While I think this is unfair, especially in the case of this production, it is true that the first half is a little slow, the plot only really picking up true operatic steam in the second. Moody’s direction certainly feels like it’s got a good handle on the material, but I’ll admit that this might not be the opera for everyone. If you’re in search of something with a few more twists and turns you might have to wait for CUOS’ Carmen; if you’re up for a short evening of well-executed Puccini, and uncomplicated yet moving action, this may well be the opera for you.