Monday, 20 October 2008

The Sound of Music

It's a wet and windy afternoon and so what better way to spend it than in the company of Puccini and some nuns...? I'm talking, of course, about Puccini's one-act opera Suor Angelica. First premiered at the Met in December 1918, it is the second of the three operas which make up Il Trittico. I first came across the most famous aria from this opera, 'Senza mamma', while watching an episode of Inspector Morse. When I realised the piece was from an opera in which the cast consists almost entirely of nuns, you can imagine my delight. However, there was better yet to come... a walk-on part for Our Lady in the final scene. I rest my case.

As the opera opens we see life in the convent running as usual. After chapel the sisters gather in the courtyard, rejoicing at the beauty of the sun on the fountain, turning the water, as it were, to gold. This reminds them of a sister who has died and Sister Genevieve suggests they pour some of the golden water onto her tomb.

The nuns then discuss their desires — while the Monitor believes that any desire at all is wrong, Sister Genevieve confesses that she wishes to see lambs again, uttering the wonderful line: 'Thou knowest, my sweet Lord, that in the world I used to be a shepherdess… I haven't seen a lamb for five years. Lord, does it vex thee if I say that I want to see a tiny one [...] and hear it bleat? If it is a sin, I offer the Miserere mei. Forgive me, Lord, Thou who art the lamb of God'. Sister Dolcina wishes for something good to eat! Sister Angelica claims to have no desires, but as soon as she says so, the nuns begin gossiping — Sister Angelica has lied, because her true desire is to hear from her wealthy, noble family, whom she has not heard from in seven years. The rumours have it that she was sent to the convent in punishment.

The conversation is interrupted by the Infirmary Sister, who begs Sister Angelica to make a herbal remedy — Sister Angelica's specialty as part of her Cadfael-esque role. This is followed by an announcement that the Princess, Sister Angelica's aunt is paying a visit.

Jolly good, you might think. But, this is a tragic opera... The Princess, a fierce mezzo-soprano, explains that Angelica's sister is to be married and that Angelica must sign a document renouncing her claim to her inheritance. Angelica replies that she has repented for her sin, but there is one thing she cannot give the Virgin — she cannot forget the memory of her (illegitimate) son who was taken from her seven years ago. The Princess refuses to speak, but finally informs Sister Angelica that her son died of fever. Sister Angelica, devastated, signs the document and collapses in tears. The Princess leaves.

Sister Angelica is seized by a heavenly vision — she believes she hears her son calling for her to meet him in paradise. She makes herself a poison and drinks it, but realizes that in committing suicide she has damned herself (I like the slightly Homer Simpson 'doh' aspect of this plot element...). She begs the Virgin for mercy and, as she dies, she sees a miracle: Our Lady appears, along with Sister Angelica's son, who runs to embrace her.

It is an incredibly moving and beautiful piece of music. A trawl through brings up some rather good extracts from productions of it. This video has Renata Scotto as the lead.

Here's another version with Barbara Frittoli as Suor Angelica:

Finally, if you've another few minutes to spend in the company of Puccini, this is √Čva Marton singing the main aria, 'Senza mamma':

For full enjoyment, here's a rough translation of the words: Without a mother, my baby, you died! Your lips, without my kisses grew pale and cold! And you closed, my baby, your beautiful eyes! Not being able to caress me, you folded your little hands in a cross! And you died without knowing how much your mother loved you! Now that you are an angel in heaven you can see your mother, you can come down from the sky and I feel you fluttering about me … You're here, you're here, you kiss me, caress me … Oh, tell me, when shall I see you in heaven? When shall I kiss you? Oh, sweet end to all my sorrows, when can I join you in Heaven? When shall I die, oh, when shall I die? Tell your mother, pretty baby, with a tiny twinkle of a star. Speak to me, my beloved, my loved one.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this, inspired by your writing I went to and purchased a copy on CD. It has rated instant promotion, after one hearing from PC to MP3.