Boston Symphony Orchestra's "Suor Angelica": Bonjour Tristesse

Kristine Opolais as "Suor Angelica"
(photo: Winslow Townson)

Hello darkness, my old friend....

With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, one was reminded of this lyric during the Boston Symphony's program last night (to be repeated tomorrow evening), as it consisted of a triplet of compositions: Lili Boulanger's D'un Soir triste, Claude Debussy's Nocturnes, and Giacomo Puccini's opera Suor Angelica, (usually performed as the middle third work in another triplet, along with Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi, beloved as Il Trittico). While it may strike some as an evening with too much sadness, the overall beauty of the three musical pieces more than compensated for their downbeat themes, not to mention that it was obvious that no one in the hall wanted the evening to end, instantly rising to a well-earned standing ovation. While on paper it portended sadness, in performance it rose to the sublime.

Boulanger's D'un Soir triste (“Of a Sad Evening”), is a twelve-minute work written at the same time as Puccini's opera (1918) and echoes its morose nature. It's essentially a mysterious mood piece that sets the tone for the evening. Claude Debussy's Nocturnes, entitled Nuages (“Clouds”), Fetes (“Festivals”) and Sirines (“Sirens”) were rewritten by the composer over the years, finally published posthumously in 1939, based in part on the paintings of James Whistler (especially his Arrangement in Black and Gray (popularly known as “Whistler's Mother”) and the poems of either Henri de Regnier (L'Homme et la sirene) or Swinburne (Nocturne) both dealing with mermaids and their influence on the love expressed by mortals. This last piece included a women's wordless chorus performed by the Lorelei Ensemble (Beth Willer, Artistic Director), who later provided exquisite depth in the opera.

After intermission, the orchestra was joined not only by soloists but also by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (James Burton, Conductor) and the BSO Children's Choir for the haunting tale of Suor Angelica. The story of the titular nun (soprano Kristine Opolais) living with the tragic secret of her child born out of wedlock is a brief but potent one, running just under an hour in this concert performance that demonstrated why it has become a perennial favorite. This production also featured mesmerizing mezzo-soprano Violeta Urmana (as the Princess, a character one loves to hate), soprano Fatma Said (as Sister Genovieffa), mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller (as The Abbess) mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick (as the Monitress), as well as members of the Lorelei Ensemble including Emily Marvosh, Katherine Growdon, Sarah Brailey, Christina English, Sophie Michaux, Meg Dudley, Claire McNamara and Sonia Tengblad. Each was dressed in black and white, though more glamorous than what might be habitual, and they all provided proof that, while this opera deals with loss and shame, it finds redemption in the end.
Kristine Opolais as "Suor Angelica"
(photo: Winslow Townson)
Words fail. The performance soared to the heights with this opera's lovely (and, yes, sad) aria, “Senza mamma”, in which Sister Angelica prays for her son (“without your mother, o baby, you die”). Opolais sang and acted absolutely full-throttle, turning a night that was infused with melancholy into a magnificent triumph. Conductor Andris Nelsons and his orchestra, in all the pieces played, showed an appreciation for nuance the likes of which one rarely hears. The Puccini work has been criticized in the past for being overly sentimental, but no such view was tenable given the simultaneous beauty and ferocity provided by Opolais. It was undeniably the finest BSO performance in eons, indeed a night to treasure.

This week also brought the long-awaited announcement of the Boston Pops' Spring schedule at Symphony Hall. As was the case with last year's programming, there will be some standout guest artists joining the anticipated roster, leading off with Bernadette Peters as the season opener, followed by Leslie Odom Jr. of Hamilton fame (who had to cancel his appearance last year due to a scheduling conflict), Jane Lynch (from Glee), Arlo Guthrie and television travel host Rick Steves. Stay tuned for more specifics on the Pops' 2019 Spring season.

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