Strong women

Kirill Petrenko conducts Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” – Faith to Face / by Malte Krasting

In the video: impressions and comments from the rehearsals

In the Augustinian convent of Vicopelago, just to the south-west of Lucca, there is a knock at the gate. Sister Giulia Enrichetta, the Mother Superior, admits a man of almost 60 years. She can answer for this exception to the rule: it is her younger brother. Most of the nuns have already gathered in the hall, where a piano is also at hand. The visitor is not unknown to them. In the past months he was occasionally a guest for a few days, but they did not know what he had in mind during these visits. The secret is now revealed: he has just finished an opera which he now wants to play to them. His name is Giacomo Puccini.

Problem child

Puccini is nervous. His piece depicts convent life in some detail and everyday transgressions, but above all it is about a grave sin – an illegitimate child born into a noble family. Would the devout women be offended if one of them, in a manner of speaking, were to be portrayed in this way? Puccini then sings and accompanies himself on the piano, taking on every role in this all-female opera, and hopes for a favourable reception. As the last notes of the redemptive angelic choir fade away, he turns around and looks into tear-filled eyes.

Doubts about the world

But what does perhaps the most famous opera composer of his time want in a Tuscan convent in 1917 in the middle of the First World War? This looks of course a bit like escapism. And escape is a recurring motif in his life: he sought refuge from his long-term relationship with Elvira in affairs, and found distractions from work in duck hunting, motorboats and cars. Puccini not only found himself between two stools politically, but was also aesthetically isolated from European art movements. This is the background against which Suor Angelica was created. The piece, barely an hour long, was part of a long-cherished project: a musical-theatrical triptych of three related but contrasting one act operas – with plots that, in keeping with their type, do not require long introductions, but instead rapidly bring the key moment of conflict-laden situations to the stage.

Centrepiece of a musical triptych

While Il tabarro (about adultery and jealousy-driven murder) and Gianni Schicchi (about a greedy family and a cunning legacy hunter) were well received from the start, the opera about the young nun had the hardest time and was often left out of performances. This hurt Puccini: “It really makes me unhappy to see the best of the three operas put aside,” he confessed at the beginning of 1921, so a close examination of this very work is more than justified, especially since some of its qualities criticized early on are in fact its strengths. The detailed exposition of the various characters, for example, which, like a puzzle, provides information bit by bit about the main conflict towards which the plot is heading. Puccini subtly builds up tension while the audience gradually gather clues about Angelica’s fate based on the few insights her fellow sisters have about her, revealing the web of relationships in which petty slights are exchanged under the guise of piety, and hurt feelings and hopes burst forth between prayers and songs – until events come to a head with the meeting of Angelica and her aunt: a monumental exchange of blows between two strong women, and one of the great duels of the operatic repertoire which need not fear comparison with Verdi’s Grand Inquisitor scene from Don Carlos.

Music education with a “highly topical story”

The importance that Kirill Petrenko attaches to passing on and conveying music to younger generations – both to budding musicians and to young audiences – was already expressed when he took office. He wants to continue the Berliner Philharmoniker’s activities in this field “with undiminished commitment” and set his own priorities. “Above all, I would like to pass on my love of music theatre and show what incredible expressive possibilities this art has to offer, especially for young people,” he said at the start of the season. He deliberately chose Puccini’s Suor Angelica: a lesser-known opera by a major composer, small in scale but with many small, sharply profiled parts, also suitable for young voices – but above all because it contains a burning issue: “It is about a young woman fighting for her very humanity in an inhuman environment: a touching, highly topical story with wonderful music.” Composer and pianist Matan Porat will introduce the opera with a prologue developed together with the singers and interrupt the scenes – already arranged by Puccini almost like chapters of a narrative – with short musical interventions: as scenic comments by the performers on the plot.

Escape from the world and the fight for survival

This concerns a further aspect of this production which is of importance to Kirill Petrenko: he was looking for an artistic personality who, together with the young singers, would research contemporary aspects of this opera and bring them to the stage in an imaginative and expressive way. This is what director Nicola Hümpel, widely known for her ensemble Nico and the Navigators, stands for. One starting point for the directorial concept is the perceived distance between modern young women and the characters in Puccini’s opera: why, one might ask, do the nuns not revolt against the injustices of their society, but rather admonish each other when rules are broken? Why do they deny themselves even the most harmless desires and do not allow each other the slightest transgression? But at second glance, such behaviour is perhaps less strange to us than it appears: many modern city dwellers prefer to focus on their own spiritual development rather than on political and social change. But retreating into individual self-discovery is no solution to the great problems facing humanity.

“Poetry, rich lyricism, varied scenes, little things, others less little, but always with human feeling”, these are – as he wrote to Carlo Clausetti on 10 July 1911 – Puccini’s ideas of good operatic material. In Suor Angelica, he examines how the little things are connected with the big, and the performance with the young, talented performers in the Karajan Academy and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s education programme also seeks to trace the effects of the little things on the less little.

The author is a dramaturge at Bayerische Staatsoper and has worked with Kirill Petrenko for many years. This text is the abridged version of an article for the magazine 128 (volume December 2019). Copies of the issue (in German) are available in our online shop and in the Philharmonie shop.

Michael Trippel