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The second section of Il Trittico is Suor Angelica, which is about a nun, Angelica, who has been sent to the convent because she had an illegitimate child. She longs for news of the boy. Her aunt visits her, raising her hopes, but the aunt soon informs her that the child has died. Angelica commits suicide to be with him in heaven – but it’s only after she has taken the poison that she remembers suicide is a mortal sin and that she has consigned herself to hell. She pleads to the Virgin to save her life, and as she dies she has a vision of her son.
They performed all three sections of Il Trittico at the Met in one evening, with Renata Scotto as the leading lady in each. It is with this second section that I thought Scotto was at her best. The last section of this where Angelica longs for her son, takes the poison, and then regrets it and dies after the vision of holding him in her arms – this was ‘grand opera’ in the very best sense. Scotto just pours herself into it, and when she emerges at the end for the curtain calls, she’s in tears. In both this and Il Tabarro the points at which she really had me were the moments when the characters are longing for something that seems real, but is just out of reach – the charm and romance of city life in the one case, and the dead child in this.
And it was with this section of the three operas that I stopped hearing “Puccini” and started just hearing Puccini. Well, most of the time at least. Puccini likes bells, doesn’t he? They’re all over Tosca and here they lead us into the opening scene, with the bells’ melody then being picked up by the orchestra. Then again, given that this is set in a convent and Tosca is set in Rome, lots of bells are not really all that surprising.
This one was a little awkward in terms of drama. Have you ever heard of the exposition baton? Well, the nuns spend a lot of time passing it around in this opera. The story doesn’t make sense without the background, so this is in some sense necessary – but it’s not perfection in dramatic terms.
But the part of this that really got my attention was the scene with Angelica’s aunt, the Princess. Throughout the opera, I kept thinking that in terms of the story there was something really very odd about this whole thing. The Princess (Jocelyne Taillon) clarified for me what it was. What I realized was that this is an opera in which you have a bunch of women characters, with names, talking to each other about . . . stuff. Not love and men, but other stuff. Like wanting to pet a lamb, or enjoying currants, or how talented Angelica is with herbal remedies (in another age, our friend Angie would I think have had a different career and been much happier) or about inheritances. I am not used to this – it was startling.
And it was the scene with the Princess that put this into focus for me. The way Taillon played this gave me the impression of a character somewhere between between Philip, the Inquisitor and the Monk in Verdi’s Don Carlos. It was authoritative and withholding of affection and grim in a sort of ecclesiastical way (even though the Princess is, obviously, not a nun). The character is definitely a woman, but she didn’t come across as a conventional female opera character ‘type’ either. If Edith Wharton had been Italian she might have written a character like this Princess.
But anyway. We’ve dispatched adultery, murder, bastardy and suicide – on to greed and perjury!
(Next part here.)