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Review: SUOR ANGELICA at Clayton Wesley Uniting Church

Review: SUOR ANGELICA at Clayton Wesley Uniting Church

Puccini's opera for women.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Saturday 23rd July 2022.

Mopoke Theatre, founded by Nicholas Cannon, who directed this production, is presenting two performances of Giacomo Puccini's 1918 one-act opera, Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica), the intimate story of a nun, setting an original Italian libretto by Giovacchino Forzano. Suor Angelica is the second of Puccini's set of three one-act operas known as Il Trittico (The Triptych), the others being Il Tabarro and, perhaps the best known, Gianni Schicchi. It is said to be a favourite of his.

There were to have been three performances but, unfortunately, the first had to be cancelled due to illness. Soprano, Fiona McArdle, who is playing the lead role, lost her voice. The show must go on. Karina Bailey, who sings with Opera Australia, flew in from Sydney on Saturday morning, ready to perform in the evening. While McArdle performed the role onstage, Bailey stood near the piano, reading the score and providing the voice. This brave move worked well and, thankfully, we didn't miss out on seeing a rare performance of this moving opera.

The opera is set in an Italian convent in Siena, in the late 17th Century. Convents that are willing to open their doors to the general public to attend performing arts events are in short supply, and so Mopoke found the next best thing, a church. A number of Adelaide's churches support the arts, both visual and performing, Clayton Wesley amongst them.

It begins as the sisters prepare to celebrate an event that is important to them, when the May evening sun at the start of spring appears, for three evenings, to turn the water in the courtyard fountain, golden. It shows the everyday life of the nuns as they go about their various duties, and express their suppressed desires. Sister Angelica is acknowledged as the herbalist and is asked by the Infirmary Sister to prepare a herbal potion for one who has been badly stung by wasps.

Two tourières, extern sisters, who interact between the closed order and the outside world by gathering contributions, arrive with supplies, and announce that a grand coach is outside. This news excites Sister Angelica, who guesses that it is a member of her family. Her excitement is to be short-lived, leading to a tragic conclusion, but with divine redemption in the final moments of the opera.

Nicholas Cannon has had a long association with Co-Opera, the company that first presented this opera under his direction in February 2012, with Fiona McArdle, making her debut. She has now returned to Australia from working extensively overseas to perform the role under his thoughtful direction. Without having a voice, she imbued her performance with emotion through facial expressions and body language. Karina Bailey, too, filled her performance with a high degree of emotion, the two artists working superbly together. This is a demanding role and splitting it between two artists adds extra complexity, which they seem to overcome with ease, particularly noticeable in their combined efforts in that wonderful but sad aria, Senza mamma. They both deserve commendation for their efforts.

Sister Angelica was sent to the convent by her family to repent her sins, having brought shame on them, and has been there for seven years with no contact. Enforced religion has often been used as a punishment. Her aunt, La Zia Principessa (The Aunt Princess), who has been her guardian and trustee since the death of her parents, sung by contralto, Meran Bow, arrives unexpectedly, insisting that Angelica sign papers renouncing her inheritance as her sister, Anna Viola, is about to marry. Bow brings an appropriate austerity to the role, giving her vocals authority worthy of an aristocrat in rebuking Angelica by calling up the memory of her mother, in a wonderful rendition of Nel silenzio.

Strong performances come from Katelyn Crawford as La Suora Zelatrice (The Sister Monitor), and Darcie Yelland as La Maestra delle Novizie, (The Mistress of the Novices), who together instruct the sisters and ensure their behaviour and devotions conform to the expected norms. The small but important role of La Badessa (The Abbess), sung with dignity by mezzo-soprano, Barbara Heidrich, as she warns Angelica about how she should behave when meeting her aunt. The ever-enthusiastic Suor Genovieffe (Sister Genevieve) is given a lively interpretation by Ruby Washington. There is much fine work in all of the other supporting roles.

Musical Director, Penelope Cashman, and Assistant MD, Sachiko Hidaka, shared the piano to bring to life Puccini's rich score, blending marvellously with the singers. Along with the fine work of the cast, and Cannon's decisive direction, they add their talents to complete the package, creating an intimate and sensitive performance, that was satisfying and greatly appreciated by the audience that gave extended applause.

Photography, Bernard Hull.

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