Young Conductor and Wife: Bland Puccini

Review by: Albert Innaurato


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

Andris Nelsons led a sensational Lohengrin last summer at Bayreuth and has made some spectacular recordings of symphonic works. His wife, Kristine Opolais, received an enthusiastic welcome from the audience at her Met debut earlier this season in Puccini’s La Rondine. She too is a star in Europe. But this performance of the emotion-drenched opera Suor Angelica is detached. It is a multi-miked effort in a radio studio, so you don’t know if this extremely clear presentation of Puccini’s imaginative orchestration is Nelsons’ doing or his balance engineer’s. However, the chords are beautifully balanced and immaculately tuned, he is attentive to Puccini’s often subtle harmonic gestures and surprises, and he maintains an excellent line throughout. Perhaps his best work comes on the short addition to the opera, Puccini’s enjoyable early work, the Preludio sinfonico.

Suor Angelica is the step child of the composer’s Triptych, Il Trittico; a quieter piece than the voluptuously violent Il tabarro or the brilliant comedy Gianni Schicchi. Angelica, a princess, has had a child out of wedlock and has been banished to a distant convent for life by her aunt, the nasty matriarch of her family, with no chance to see her child. Seven years have passed when the aunt suddenly shows up. She simply wants Angelica to sign away her patrimony for a younger sister who is about to marry, but when Angelica demands to know what has happened to her child, the aunt coldly tells her he died, and leaves.

Angelica commits suicide, but dying, cries that she has committed mortal sin and won’t see her baby in heaven. Hence, the Virgin arrives with a little boy as angels sing, and per the stage directions Angelica is able to embrace him as she dies. This is not a story to enchant Anglo-Saxon sensibilities (Il Trittico had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918). But with the right Angelica, helped by a stylish supporting cast, the opera can pack a real punch.

That is not the case here, more a very accurate reading than a vivid, idiomatic performance. As the familiar operatic rep ages more and more, fewer emerging singers have a precise sense of style. Though global culture allows most of these singers to pronounce Italian clearly without intrusive accents, it’s not clear anyone really understands how these lines would be spoken, something that guided Puccini in setting all of his operas. Take a small moment, such as when it is announced there will be a visitor. All the nuns are thrilled and hope it is for each of them—except for the youngest sister who tells Angelica she has offered a prayer that the visit is for her.

“Grazie”—thank you—responds Angelica—twice. Yet the second must be different from the first and needn’t be in strict time; the point is to show how moved Angelica is, and then how choked up with hope. Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto, and Victoria de los Angeles on their recordings all make this little moment very moving. It goes for nothing here. Later, when the aunt tells Angelica her little sister is to be married, Angelica first remembers her as the girl she was when she last saw her, and then realizes how much time has passed and how she has missed her. Tebaldi especially is heart-rending in this moment, but it’s routine here, as is the entire fraught scene between Angelica and her aunt (Lioba Braun).

Opolais has an interesting, rather ripe lyric voice up to the G; above that she doesn’t always seem at ease, though she manages the cruel high writing at the end of the opera acceptably. But while clearly an outstanding musician, she offers little that is individual or distinctive in this role. The others are well equipped pros doing a job. The sound is spectacular but the soul is absent.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Angeles, Serafin (EMI)

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