by Coril Prochnow, Lister reviewer
Riverside Lyric Opera presented a jewel from Puccini’s crown, Suor Angelica, on September 18th at The Box at The Fox on Market Street in Riverside. A wonderfully intimate venue for opera, “The Box” offers an upscale private environment for evening entertainment, with a secluded plaza and a private entry to the parking garage adjacent.
Stage Director Gabriel Reoyo Pazos warmed up the audience before the show with a brief description of Puccini’s early life and the “story behind the opera”, then began the performance using an innovative treatment to establish the daily rhythms of the convent: For almost five minutes, with no sound other than their footsteps and occasional chatter, nuns and lay sisters came and went onstage in the course of their daily chores and errands, whispering and giggling or strictly silent in adherence to their discipline.
The music, when it finally started, seemed a natural outgrowth of the flow of activity – the simple intoning of a bell calling everyone to evening prayer. The stage was set with two large tilt-up background panels, representing the convent chapel and a neighboring building, plus a life-size statue of Mary at stage left in front of the chapel. The sisters gathered in (behind) the chapel where their voices rose in Ave Maria, while stragglers slipped in quietly under the stern and critical eye of the Monitor, sung in a creamy, commanding mezzo by Steffanie Altig. Suor Angelica, portrayed by Natalie Mann, made her first appearance after prayers had already started, kneeling to kiss the threshold in penance for her tardiness before hurrying into the chapel. Her brief solo here, of the final four measures of the Ave Maria, presaged her own death, the pathos in her voice intimating all the drama to come.
The first segment of Puccini’s masterpiece is devoted to bringing the activities and characters of the convent to life, and the cast did great work developing the vocal styles and personalities of the nuns. Lindsay Patterson, Mistress of the Novices, displayed a warm, polished mezzo and a dazzling smile, despite her role as disciplinarian. Amy K. Mein as Angelica’s confidante, Sister Genevieve, sang with a strong, clear, youthful sound and an endearingly empathic nature. Anna Cameron, the Nursing Sister, all a-twitter at the need to relieve another nun’s wasp sting, created an admirable foil for Angelina’s calm and devoted service, and Claudia Sobol’s rich, resonant mezzo rang out in the autocratic character of the Abbess.
Laura Jackson, Sherry Kaplan and Emma Berggren as Lay Sisters, Elizabeth Langlois as Suor Dolcina, Valerie Estle as Touriere, Lynda Reynolds as Suor Osmina and Montessa Holt as Suor Lucilla, all brought unique attitudes and vocal color to their roles, each a strong musician clearly invested in her character. As an ensemble, the chorus of nun’s voices blended beautifully and was surprisingly moving, revealing the totally feminine nature of the convent community.
Ms. Mann’s voice soared over the other sisters in timbre and character every time she sang, conveying a wealth of emotions ranging from maternal concern for the other nuns to grief, passion and celestial bliss in the latter half of the opera.
Debbie Dey’s appearance as La Zia Principessa was visually stunning, attired in a richly elegant brocade gown adorned with a sparkling opulence of jewels, matching purse and gloves, and a truly spectacular hat. Her burnished contralto was as commanding and imperious as her bearing, beautiful and masterful in the role. She froze the stage with icy condescension but inflamed her niece, who was desperate for news of the son who had been torn from her at the moment of his birth. The years of pent-up longing finally erupted in Angelica’s aria, Tutto offerto alla Vergine, which was breathtaking in its intensity, Ms. Mann’s voice maintaining the warmth and vulnerability of her character throughout its emotional frenzy and vocal pyrotechnics.
The aria which follows, Senza Mamma, is an unabashed outpouring of Angelica’s grief at the loss of her child, and Ms. Mann delivered a stellar performance, singing with a gorgeous, fully supported sound and palpable sentiments. I’m not sure the audience survived the heart-rending ordeal as well as she did.
The final scenes were sad but tender as Angelica prepared to take her own life in order to join her little boy until, too late, she realized that by committing a mortal sin she had cost herself that joy forever. Every production deals differently with the possibility of a miracle of forgiveness for this act, and Mr. Pazos chose a surprising and dramatically effective ending. As Angelica begged for mercy from the Virgin Mother, the life-size statue of the Virgin at stage left came to life and raised her arms in acknowledgement. Angelica’s little son (played by Theo Burke) came out to meet his mother, then he took her hand and they processed together into the mysterious blueness of heaven, found upstage.
The chorus for the final scene included not only the sisters from the convent, but also almost a dozen children, coached by Aneta Augustyn, and five men: James Cameron, John Guerin, Daniel E. Olson, Shawn Taylor and Neal Williams. The expanded ensemble filled the theatre with sound, making the final climax quite affecting, suggestive of a choir of angels that had joined the nuns in their praise of the Madonna.
Artistic Director Dr. Stephen Tucker ably conducted a chamber orchestra consisting of Abraham Fabella on piano; Audrey Spaulding on Keyboard 2, which included synthesized sounds for church bells and other occasional instruments; Sam Yoon, concertmaster and first violin; Regan Lambert on violin; Si Tran on viola; Esther Chu on ‘cello; Paul Baker on harp; and Anna Choi on flute/piccolo. The piano provided accompaniment throughout, with the additional instruments adding texture and color intermittently. The effect was very musical, enriching the performance and supporting the subtle emotions underlying the music. Supertitles, operated by Nicholas Fortin, were projected on the back wall, with an occasional photographic image included to augment the physical props.
Next up for Riverside Lyric Opera is two performances on December 27, 2015 of Amahl and the Night Visitors, by Giancarlo Menotti, featuring Janet Hopkins as the Mother and Jordan Granda as Amahl. The Cotton Club Musical Revue follows on March 5th, 2016. For more information and tickets, click here or go to www.riversidelyricopera.org.